Last week, a group of students (from where, I don't know) were at the temple asking about the Buddhist view of the death penalty. I really didn't have an answer, but it was certainly an intriguing question. I mumbled and stumbled through the opening of an answer that I hadn't really come up with yet (on camera, mind you, as they were filming - they said it was for a class project)until my teacher asked us to discontinue the interview, as there were concerns about the politically-charged nature of the questions, and about the motivations of the students themselves. To be fair, I think the nuns felt like the temple was being cornered into making a political statement, which of course would be inappropriate.
Of course, we all have our opinions, whether we represent a faith-based organization or not. In fact, such representation can be problematic.
For one thing, there's no single, unifying voice in worldwide Buddhism, as in the major Western faiths. We don't have a Vatican to issue policy statements or a Mecca to issue fatwahs. We simply practice what we believe (and what we are taught) was the intent of the Buddha's teaching.
One of the most important things the Buddha taught was "Do not kill." It's commonly accepted as the first Precept. So, Buddhists clearly do not believe that it's right to kill, to take life. As the Buddha did not teach, "Do not kill except in the following cases...", it's commonly accepted that all killing is wrong. This is why many Buddhists are vegetarians, peace activists and conscientious objectors.
Isn't it amazing how something so straightforward can be treated with such confusion? Because here's where I start wavering.
Steve Earle, the musician and anti-death-penalty activist, sees it this way: When a government carries out the death sentence, it kills someone in the name of the people it serves. So when the State of Texas executes a murderer, for example, it kills him (or her) in my name. It kills on my behalf. Clearly, this isn't something that I should want to allow, assuming that I would have some power to prevent it (move out of the state, publish documents clarifying that the State doesn't represent my interests in this case, etc). Allowing someone to be killed in my name does something to who I am, and it's not something good.
Personally, I have to disagree, to an extent. I can't pretend to be either for or against at this point, but I do recognize that something must be in place to prevent certain crimes when possible. I realize also that there are times when murders will occur, even though the death penalty exists - and it is for this reason that so many people discount the death penalty as a deterrent to violent crime. Personally, I know of at least one instance when a violent crime that would probably have resulted in a murder did not happen because the would-be aggressor didn't want to go to the "death house." I was there and I witnessed it. Where an attack was about to happen, this person thought about the death penalty and walked away.
I know of another instance wherein a man defended his home against an intruder. He used a handgun, which he aimed at the intruder's forehead. In the split-second before he squeezed off the bullet that would have ended the intruder's life, he saw himself sitting on death row. Being unsure of the exact combination of laws pertaining to his particular case, he adjusted his aim and shot the intruder in the shoulder. I wasn't there and didn't see it, but it was told to me by someone whom I believe.
So I must draw the conclusion, based on my own personal experiences and upon those that were related to me by trusted sources, that there are times when the existence of a death penalty makes a positive difference. What this means is that I personally know of two people who are alive today (well, who didn't die at that moment, anyway) because of the death penalty. How many people out there, throughout this country over the last 30 years since the re-inception of the penalty, have been spared a violent death in similar stories?
Does this justify the actual execution of 1,064 people (387 in Texas alone) since 1976? I don't know, as of course there are other factors involved. In 2005, according to DOJ stats, 3,254 people were on death row in the US. 128 new people were sentenced to die, and 60 were executed.
And is it a matter of numbers? I don't know that either. I know that the penalty works, to some extent, but does that limited success negate the people who actually dying? And that's not to mention those who've been exonerated from death row, due to DNA results and other factors - which leads to the conclusion that not all who are executed are guilty.
And on top of it all, there's the First Precept. Do Not Kill. At what point are we no longer creating good karma by preventing suffering? Where should we draw the karmic line? And, what are the karmic consequences for killing a killer, when that killing may have prevented yet another killing?