The world has watched with horror as the terrorist organization ISIS released footage wherein they burned a Jordanian pilot alive. There is no doubt in anyone’s minds (well, anyone who isn’t a radical extremist) that this murder is a sickening crime, one that should be soundly condemned.
Thus far, the nation of Jordan’s response has been to carry out the hanging of two ISIS prisoners. Clearly an act of retaliation, many actually think that these two executions don’t go far enough in answering the ISIS’s actions.
As Catholics, it’s easy to agree with the majority opinion that the slaughter of the Jordanian pilot is murder, an evil action. And while we might be tempted to agree with the Jordanian response, it seems to me that Catholic teaching would also oppose these two executions.
While the anger of the Jordanian nation and the need for a strong response certainly seems justified, enforcing the death penalty answers murder with murder. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, though, that punishments are to be proportionate to the offenses committed and medicinal in purpose. That is, the punishment (such as jail time, etc.) should seek to help the criminal to rectify their life.
Technically, the Catechism goes on to say, the death penalty could be called for, but only “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (CCC 2267). “In this modern age, the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent”, the Catechism teaches.
Basically, the death penalty would be justified as a form of self-defense, and self-defense only. Yet, most countries in the world have the ability to enforce life imprisonment, taking away the need for execution as a means of defending individuals or even the country as a whole.
My assumption would be that Jordanian officials hope these executions will be effective as a show of force, demonstrating to the ISIS that they are a force to be reckoned with. Whatever their intention, however, we no longer live under a moral code that demands an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Rather, we are asked to respect God as the author of life, recognizing that unless it is a case of self-defense or just war (See Catechism 2312-2314 for more on Just War Theory), killing another person is murder.
Terrorism is egregious and war is complicated. There are times when the strategic use of force is, indeed, legitimately needed to protect innocent life. It could be argued, for example, that potential Jordanian airstrikes against the ISIS could be justified if their purpose was truly to protect the people of Jordan (and even people of other countries). However, executions as a form of revenge, especially when the ISIS doesn’t seem to value human life at all, seems only to further disregard the gift of life we’ve been asked to protect.