Well, at 18 (hey, if you can do it...)
The death penalty: Relic of the Dark Ages

April 6, 1967

Just a few weeks ago, the Massachusetts Democratic Party took a stand in favor of lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Though their motive was political (to attract the younger voters, many of whom have been straying off to the Republican camp lately), the proposal is worth some serious consideration.

As a seventeen year old, I am very much in favor of such a change, basically because I would like to be able to vote next year. There are, of course, better reasons to support the change. The first is so familiar that it has become one of America's favorite slogans -- "if he's old enough to fight, he's old enough to vote."

Though this statement is consistent with our democratic principles, its logic has been questioned, perhaps rightly so. Skill with a gun doesn't necessarily imply the ability to vote intelligently. However, at 18 one has other responsibilities besides a military obligation.

An eighteen year old can have a steady job, own property, pay taxes, perhaps have a family or be responsible for his education (no small responsibility that is either). Today's eighteen year old is forced by society to be more mature than his parent's probably were at that age. He is also better informed than they were. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines, paperbacks and high school government courses all urge him to be interested in the political scene, and he is, more than young people have been for many years.

He has opinions on everything from the war in Vietnam to Adam Clayton Powell ["controversial" black congressman from New York] to the federal narcotics laws, and on quite a few of the issues he knows more than his parents do. (Note: Young people ranked higher on the CBS current events test than any other age group.) As a group their interest is focused more towards the national and international levels than their parents, who tend to concentrate on local and state government first.

As a group, the 18 to 20 set is as well qualified to vote as those older, if responsibility and a clear knowledge of the questions are to be considered the qualifications. What else is there? Some would say that wisdom is necessary. What wisdom? If you voted in the last presidential election, answer this question: Why did you vote for whom you did? Did you carefully weigh the issues and choose the candidate whose beliefs best matched your own? Did you base your vote purely on party affiliations? Or was it Johnson's good looks? Maybe a sensitive pocketbook? Your friend's opinions? Your boss's?

Have you answered honestly? Now, consider, would an eighteen year old's reasons be any less valid than your own?

It is unfortunate that there is any age requirement for voting. Some thirty year olds should be kept away from the ballot box, while some could vote wisely at fourteen. The requirement should be only that the voter have an opinion, and a valid reason for it. Of course that wouldn't be very practical. Imagine how many adults wouldn't get to vote.

To avoid any possible misunderstandings, I would like to remind the readers that the opinions given in this column are those of the writer, and in no way reflect the policies of any institutions, public or private. The writer is solely responsible for all that is printed under his name, unless otherwise stated.

Ah, the disclaimer -- and declaration of independence.

The voting age in the United States has of course been 18 for some years now, federally and I assume generally. I, as it turned out, never got to vote until I was 25 -- well old enough before in Canada if not until then a citizen. I have never since missed the opportunity to cast a ballot, in federal, provincial, or municipal elections; even in our rare referenda. Even if, knowing well, that that's hardly all there is to politics.

As for "the eighteen year old" -- quite apart from that too definite "the," like "the reader," even "the people (yes, the people)"; we'd later hear of "the homosexual" -- "he" was of course also "she." If rarely spoken of then, as such. We had been educated to call nations, even ships, "she" -- and, I've found, I still did then.


April 20, 1967

In Peoria, Ill. last week, Richard Speck was found guilty of the murder of eight student nurses in Chicago, and the jury recommended that he be put to death.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has eight men on "Death Row" in the State Prison at Walpole.

A convicted murderer was himself murdered last week by the State of California.

As one can see, the human race still continues to exhibit some of the barbarism of the Dark Ages; the death penalty remains on the books.

I personally cannot see why such a condition still exists in a nation that considers itself so advanced. Capital punishment is a decrepit relic from our comparitively [sic] uncivilized past that is becoming harder to condone as time goes on. There are a number of formidible [sic!] arguments against it.

Capital punishment, first of all, is not so great a deterrent to crime as it might seem at first glance. Consider the frame of mind of a person who is about to commit murder. If the killer happens to be of the psychopathic variety, which Speck probably was, he gives no consideration at all to the consequences of his actions, whether it be death or a slap on the hand. Psychopaths are sick people, and a truly enlightened society would not gas them like mad dogs, but would make some attempt to cure them.

Of course, not all murders are committed by psychopaths, but still, even a perfectly sane person about to commit murder is not likely to consider his punishment and be stopped by the fear of it. Statistics show that the rate of murder has not risen in states which have abolished the death penalty.

Secondly, capital punishment accomplishes nothing. It is indeed surprising that our society, which prides itself in trying to be merciful and understanding towards its more troubled elements, can even tolerate a system that simply exterminates the criminal. Killing a criminal erases any chance of ever rehabilitating him. Killing a criminal erases any chance that he may have had to do even a little good in the world. Killing a murderer does not prevent any further murders, indeed, the execution itself is murder.

And last, and perhaps least in many minds, capital punishment is morally wrong. Our society which worships God so devoutly every Sunday cannot even see fit to practice the mercy that is a basic (perhaps the basic) tenet of their faith, and which is, as Shakespeare said, "at attribute to God himself." Even if a convicted murderer is of no value to society, he is an individual and has the right to his own life, which God gave him, and which no man has the right to take away. The killer has committed his crime, and no matter what actions his fellow men might take, he in the end must face judgement. If God can forgive him, we must also.

A little girl once asked her mother, who was working on the Caryl Chessman case, if a bad man could be good. When answered yes, he could, she asked how he could be good if he wasn't given a chance to. You, society, must answer her.

In 2001, some 38 US states retain (some having abolished, then reinstated) the death penalty. On evidence, mostly from DNA, that for every seven executions in the US there is an innocent person sitting on Death Row, some states have, for the moment, stopped killing convicts.

Canada's last execution (at Toronto's Don Jail, by hanging) was in 1962. The death penalty was struck from the books a few years later. On February 15, 2001 (the day before I transcribed this) the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that two BC men wanted for murder in Washington state could not be extradited. In fact it ruled, unanimously, that sending anyone to his or her likely death violates Canada's Constitution, and "the Canadian sense of fundamental justice."


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February 2001 / Last revised: October 5, 2001
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