What Is Gained From the Death Penalty?

An unidentified Arizona Corrections Officer adjusts the straps on the gurney used for lethal injections at the Florence Death
An unidentified Arizona Corrections Officer adjusts the straps on the gurney used for lethal injections at the Florence Death House at the Arizona State Prison at Florence (Ariz.) in this undated photo provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections. On Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2003, a federal appeals court overturned more than 80 death sentences in Arizona because a judge, instead of a jury, handed them down. Death sentences in Idaho and Montana also were affected. (AP Photo/Arizona Department of Corrections)

"Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint." -- Alexander Hamilton

Many Oklahomans support the death penalty. That won't change any time soon. However, the troubling circumstances around Tuesday's execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett present us with questions about our values and pragmatism that we can't ignore. What becomes of a person like Lockett isn't an issue here. What we should be concerned with is what happens to us as result of what we do, or do not do, to him.

Lethal injection was created as a means of "more humanely" killing reprehensible offenders. But of course it is still the act of killing, no matter how we mask it. We mask it for us, not for the offender's comfort. Lockett may have deserved to die for the unthinkable things he did, but what does the public gain from it?

Imagine if Lockett was trained to work a job in prison and give his wages to the victim's family until his dying day. Could such restitution add something valuable to a miserable situation? Surely it would fail to adequately repair what he's broken, but the death penalty fails to placate the sorrows and grievances of the victims, and with no benefit of reparation or restitution.

Capital punishment is in place to placate the passions of the public, and of those victims who want it. Many may argue that the passions of the victims' families are paramount. When a Navy SEAL killed the man responsible for the murder of my brother, I was satisfied. But I would have been equally content had he been taken out of that compound in Pakistan in handcuffs and spent the rest of his life sitting in a cell.

I could imagine wanting to kill someone who kills my child, but should the state craft its criminal justice system around my personal passion? I may feel differently 10 years later. Should state policy similarly reflect other victims' families who may want reduced sentences and leniency, even when such soft-handedness is ill-advised?

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves if we want to willingly participate in the culture of violence that we say we abhor. How does this complicity impact our dignity? Other states and nations are able to work with some of the worst offenders to have them perform restitution for the victim's families and the community. Surely we could too.

In Rwanda, some of the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide are now being relocated back into their home villages to perform restitution. I know we have the courage to experiment with similar approaches to restorative justice within the safe confines of our prison system.

If a democracy at its essence is a reflection of the will of its people, then constitutional provisions are also in place to protect us from our passions and prejudices, when necessary. Sometimes our passions lead us away from our moral compass. We need the government to be a check on that, rather than enable our fury and vindictiveness.

Rice, executive director of Variety Health Care Center in Oklahoma City, is a former Democratic state senator. His brother, David, was killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.