On Tuesday, John Allen Muhammad, the D.C. sniper, was put to death by lethal injection.


While many have celebrated the execution, I am left with a profound sense of sadness and disappointment at our continued use of the death penalty — rather than life in prison — as a form of justice. Like most humans, I struggle to find any sympathy for Muhammad. Instead, my heart goes out to the 13 innocent people murdered or wounded by Muhammad, as well as the millions of citizens who were placed in a 20-day state of terror because of the heartless assassin. Still, I refuse to allow my moral outrage to degenerate into rage and bloodlust.


While some focus on the moral dimensions of the death penalty per se, I make no such argument. In all honesty, I remain conflicted about whether “eye for an eye” justice has a rightful place in a civilized society. No, my concerns are far more pragmatic. How can a nation with such a deeply flawed criminal justice system feel comfortable doling out the most extreme and irreversible punishment imaginable? How can we continue to use state-sanctioned murder as a crime deterrent when all evidence says that it doesn’t work? While the Muhammad case is a clear-cut instance of guilt, our laws must reflect the broad range of death penalty cases that are far more circumstantial and murky.

Right now, many of you are saying “If it were your loved one murdered by Muhammad you’d feel differently.” While that is probably true, it is hardly the point. If I were personally connected to such a tragedy, I would be craving vengeance rather than justice. I would not be my best self. I would not have the moral clarity to make or impose justice. And I would hope that someone would have the courage and character to demand more from me, and from our society. Without such intervention, we would all fail to realize our full moral potential.


– Marc Lamont Hill is a professor at Columbia University.


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