What’s wrong with the world

Opposition to the death penalty (DP) takes many forms, but the ones I am focusing on here are objections based on a seeming difficulty with the thesis that the DP is the proportionate penalty for some crimes. Objections come in three flavors: (1) that no crime is bad enough to deserve death; (2) that even if death is proportional as a punishment for a crime, some lesser penalty might also be adequate and (therefore) should always be preferred over using the DP; and (3) that the insistence on proportionality by DP is undermined by the fact that if death is proportional for a certain level of serious crime (such as the murder of an innocent civilian), there are many much more serious crimes than that (such as the murder of many innocent civilians, or the murder of policemen, or the instigation of insurrection, or the treasonous assassination of a president…), and yet we cannot put the murderer to death many times to fit proportionality to the crime, hence the thesis that we ought to carry out death as the ‘proportional’ penalty for a single murder is disturbed by the lack of proportion found further down the line.

The last objection could seem to lead to the conclusion that the DP should then be used only for the one single class of crime that is “the absolute worst”, but because of the difficulty of locating such a class, in reality the objectors’ intention is to fuzz the notion of proportionality sufficiently to undermine ANY certain or definitive claims about it, and especially claims that we can be confident that the DP is proportionate to any specific crime.

An Air Force special operator working with the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, Technical Sergeant Chapman perished in eastern Afghanistan in March of 2002 after fighting, alone and seriously wounded, against many al Qaeda irregulars for several hours. In his final moments, he exposed himself to lethal fire in order to provide cover for comrades in a helicopter.

To this display of surpassing valor, the story adds a note of tragic bitterness between the various service branches. Specifically, the note of bitterness arises from the delay in awarding Chapman the Medal of Honor, which his widow finally received last summer. That delay, it seems, was primarily the product of Navy opposition (though some dispute that), and military-bureaucracy machination.

Sean Naylor supplies all the details, from the inspirational to the ugly, in this riveting report in Newsweek last year, which I will not summarize. Instead, just read it, and I’ll conclude with Sgt. Chapman’s official Medal of Honor citation: Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism as an Air Force Special Tactics Combat Controller, attached to a Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) Team conducting reconnaissance operations in Takur Ghar, Afghanistan, on March 4, 2002. During insertion, the team’s helicopter was ambushed causing a teammate to fall into an entrenched group of enemy combatants below. Sergeant Chapman and the team voluntarily reinserted onto the snow-capped mountain, into the heart of a known enemy stronghold to rescue one of their own. Without regard for his own safety, Sergeant Chapman immediately engaged, moving in the direction of the closest enemy position despite coming under heavy fire from multiple directions. He fearlessly charged an enemy bunker, up a steep incline in thigh-deep snow and into hostile fire, directly engaging the enemy. Upon reaching the bunker, Sergeant Chapman assaulted and cleared the position, killing all enemy occupants. With complete disregard for his own life, Sergeant Chapman deliberately moved from cover only 12 meters from the enemy, and exposed himself once again to attack a second bunker, from which an emplaced machine gun was firing on his team. During this assault from an exposed position directly in the line of intense fire, Sergeant Chapman was struck and injured by enemy fire. Despite severe, mortal wounds, he continued to fight relentlessly, sustaining a violent engagement with multiple enemy personnel before making the ultimate sacrifice. By his heroic actions and extraordinary valor, sacrificing his life for the lives of his teammates, Technical Sergeant Chapman upheld the highest traditions of military service and reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

Everything in space and time exists because of the creative Power of God. Matter is not eternal; the universe has an intelligent Personality back of it, an Architect, a Builder, and a Sustainer. Creation is the work of God. The sculptor works on marble, the painter on canvas, the machinist on matter, but none of them can create. They bring existing things into new combinations, but nothing else. Creation belongs to God alone.

God writes His name on the soul of every man. Reason and conscience are the God within us in the natural order. The Fathers of the early Church were wont to speak of the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle as the unconscious Christ within us. Men are like so many books issuing from the Divine press, and if nothing else be written on them, at least the name of the Author is indissolubly engraved on the title page. God is like the watermark on paper, which may be written over without ever being obscured.

[. . .]Caesar Augustus, the master bookkeeper of the world, sat in his palace by the Tiber. Before him was stretched a map labeled Orbis Terrarum, Imperium Romanum. He was about to issue an order for a census of the world; for all the nations of the civilized world were subject to Rome. There was only one capital in this world: Rome; only one official

In the filthiest place in the world, a stable, Purity was born. He, Who was later to be slaughtered by men acting as beasts, was born among beasts. He, Who would call Himself the “living Bread descended from Heaven,” was laid in a manger, literally, a place to eat. Centuries before, the Jews had worshiped the golden calf, and the Greeks, the ass. Men bowed down before them as before God. The ox and the ass now were present to make their innocent reparation, bowing down before their God.

An innate interest in arguing over Lists appears present in most, and pronounced in many male members of our peculiar creature called man. Men will throw themselves into animated discourse over such matters as The Best NFL Quarterback (Elway), or The Greatest Basketball Player (LeBron), or Greatest English Prose Stylist (Wodehouse), laying out Top Threes and Top Fives and Top Tens with notable vigor and persistence. Frequently the females of the species can be observed on the fringes, bedecked with wry smiles or affecting harried cynicism.

The book under review here, an absorbing study composed by Prof. Paul Kengor of Grove City College, is part of the growing body of historical assessment which is making that mischief no longer effective as such. Because, it turns out, there surely is no mischief in adding to the list of the Greatest Presidents, our Republic’s greatest peacemaker. Lincoln and Washington both fought and won wars — just wars, I think — but still cruel and awful confrontations that left indelible scars, bitterness, and many other evils in their wake.

Upon diving in, the reader of A Pope and a President will immediately find himself riding the splendid narrative currents of something extraordinary: A Catholic-Protestant alliance without historical parallel. Aspects of this tale have been related in many fine historical works over the past two decades; and we might say that the general lineaments of it are well known in a hazy kind of way.

Millennials who came of age after these men’s deaths — at least those possessed of any sense — do know that Reagan won the Cold War, that John Paul II was a great pope, and that both were lifelong and courageous anti-Communists. Most, likewise, understand dimly that all this implies considerable honor to both men, honor that is even granted, however grudgingly, by folks who admire them little in other matters.