We Won’t Sentence a Corporation to the Death Penalty


AVAILABLE FOR REPRINT. Copy and use freely. Please help PeaceVoice by notifying us when you use this piece: PeaceVoiceDirector@gmail.com

“But we do collectively sentence other ‘legal persons’ to death. According to Amnesty International, there are as many as 3,300 inmates on death row in the United States alone, as of today; mostly male; many with mental illnesses; many abused as children; many guilty of the accused crimes; many innocent among them.
In Maryland itself, each death penalty case costs the state taxpayers three million dollars. Even with these numbers and considerations, only 15 states have abolished capital punishment, showing that contrary to rhetoric against conservatives, Americans do care about something other than money and profits: we care about protecting our moral standards first. Still, why is this topic so controversial to so many?…”

Author: Stephanie Van Hook, Conflict Resolution graduate, former Peace Corps volunteer, and Board member of the Oregon Peace Institute
Published in: Huntington News Network in West Virginia (home page: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/; this piece here)
Date: February 7, 2010

For the full article:
We Won’t Sentence a Corporation to the Death Penalty
(822 words)
by Stephanie Van Hook

But we do collectively sentence other ‘legal persons’ to death. According to Amnesty International, there are as many as 3,300 inmates on death row in the United States alone, as of today; mostly male; many with mental illnesses; many abused as children; many guilty of the accused crimes; many innocent among them.

In Maryland itself, each death penalty case costs the state taxpayers three million dollars. Even with these numbers and considerations, only 15 states have abolished capital punishment, showing that contrary to rhetoric against conservatives, Americans do care about something other than money and profits: we care about protecting our moral standards first. Still, why is this topic so controversial to so many?

Conservative Americans stand firm in a belief in the sanctity of life and in protecting the individual. They seek to make clear that these [legal] people have transgressed our moral standards and the families of the victims need closure for the harm done. It is about individualism and security: a nation that does not prioritize the security of the individual is not doing its job.

Just as a father would feel it to be his responsibility to severely punish his child as a consequence of hurting another, with “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” a nation without severe consequences will never teach true morals to its citizens either. In fact, without such severe consequences, we demonstrate no empathy at all for those who have suffered.

Progressive Americans also stand anchored: there is no such thing as individual culture; we are a collective culture. To the progressive, we are literally made up of one another, like a family. We should feel responsible when a crime is committed in our larger human family, in the same way that a mother feels shame, and partially responsible, when she finds out that the child has been arrested for stealing.

Likewise, the progressive side believes that for each crime committed by any member of our society, we are partially responsible as a nation to rehabilitate that person, as we would our own child. We may have been deeply offended by the act, but we should hold fast to the ideal that human life is always sacred, even in the most trying of circumstances on our hearts and minds. We place our eggs in the basket of human imperfection and firmly state that a society based in retribution, not rehabilitation, is one that lacks empathy.

As it turns out, conservatives and progressives actually agree with one another: Americans are morally rooted in the sanctity of life and in a culture of empathy. We care about our security: that of our families, of our communities, and of our nation; and we care about each other. We even care so much about individual people that when we come together in these collective identities, we don’t see abstract entities; we see collectives of individual people who deserve our empathy. This is why I am willing to defend my sister’s intentions sometimes, even if the act she committed might be wrong, since she is a part of my family; or why we are at times willing to defend our President if he makes a mistake: because he seems to be acting in good faith and we elected him to make hard choices in the name of our nation.

Regardless of what it may look like on the outside, we are a culture in respect and defense of the person. This idea is reinforced by the recent Supreme Court ruling to affirm ‘legal personhood’ to the corporation. Why? Because a corporation is not an abstract entity–it, like a family, is composed of individuals. And, paradoxically,our government, like a parent who deeply loves her child, is willing time and again to grant pardon to our corporations for their mistakes (our mistakes), and their transgressions (our transgressions);or as she would act toward an unfaithful spouse, to give them another chance.

What about when corporations commit alleged acts that would warrant capital punishment? Even if we could, we would never sentence a corporation to the death penalty because we do not hold them fully responsible for their actions. When it comes to this specific collective of individuals, we are astoundingly progressive as a nation. Yet, we wouldn’t have the chance to see this truth about ourselves without the work of conservatives, either. So, why are we not yet this empathetic with each other, as exemplified by the 3,300 legal persons on death row?

As it stands, the United States of America is becoming incorporated, whether we like it or not. Perhaps our real challenge (as the original “legal persons” ) is not to deepen our mistrust for corporations with this ruling; rather, we must work unceasingly to undo our deeply rooted mistrust of one another. As this decision gives us pause to redefine what makes a person sacred, reconsidering the death penalty may be the right issue to start with.

* * *
Stephanie Van Hook teaches French and holds a graduate degree in Conflict Resolution. She is a veteran Peace Corps volunteer (Benin, West Africa) and is on the board of directors of the Oregon Peace Institute.