“Thou shalt not kill.”
Of all the Commandments, I personally would have put this one at the top. Maybe I’m funny that way, or maybe I’m just not quite the omniscient being and there are other factors in play I’m not aware of, but it does seem to be a rather important one. Setting all of that aside however, it is at least straightforward. “Thou shalt not kill.” It has also been translated as “Thou shall not commit murder”, which is a very different thing entirely, and it makes a big difference which is the correct statement when looking at this from a public policy perspective. There are two distinct yet equally important reasons for this, one of which I can come down in agreement with the “not commit murder” version, and the other I come down on the “shalt not kill” side, so I’m a bit torn.
For the first reason, there’s the question of “what exactly is murder?” I know that sounds like a silly question to some, maybe most, but it is an important question, not just in jurisprudence but in society. Is murder any time you shorten another person’s time on Earth? If so, I can’t agree with that definition. Put bluntly, if you threaten me or mine, I will not hesitate to use any and all necessary force to affect our defense and escape. That’s not to say I prefer to use force nor do I look forward to the day, but I reserve the right, and while I may regret the necessity of the act I will never regret the act itself.
Likewise, I am a great proponent of the idea that a person’s life is their own, to live as they see fit and only so long as they wish to. If they require assistance in leaving a life they no longer find tolerable, I will not hold someone liable for providing that assistance. Maybe that makes me a bad person in the eyes of some, but that’s what I believe and I stand by it.
So having ruled out those definitive cases, what about the questionable ones? What about the issues of negligence, unintentional action, and incitement? Those I am comfortable at least putting in the custody of the judicial system, as they are questionable, and are worthy of being weighed by a jury. While I can see in each one of those without stretching a case of either vindication or at least a far lesser crime, I can also easily see a case of murder. That is why we have an adversarial judicial system, to sort out such murky cases, and to (ideally) ensure the innocent are not punished along with the guilty.
But the truth is that the judicial system is also something we have to look at when we consider this Commandment, because it is a part of the government, and at least in America the government represents us all. The actions the government takes are, if not literally than at least symbolically, the actions we all take, and if we do not at least raise our voices against the immoral actions than we are equally culpable of them.
I have made my feelings on the death penalty clear before, but here we have another consideration to make. If the State is, collectively speaking, all of us, then every action taken by the State is an action taken by us. That includes every execution carried out by the State. If you believe that the proper interpretation of this Commandment is “Thou shall not commit murder”, you cannot in good conscience ever question any execution carried out, or else you must oppose all of them, and as I have pointed out before the inherent imperfection of man is such that the latter is inevitable. Even if you believe the death penalty is just and can be (and is) applied justly, and therefore it is not murder, do you believe the proper translation is “thou shalt not kill”? If so, you must oppose the death penalty on those grounds alone. As a wise man once wrote, “you can’t eat meat and look down your nose at the butcher.”
It may seem odd that I would have no problem with killing in my own person, or even with someone ending their own life, and I have as much as said I would help someone to end theirs if asked, yet I am opposed to the State taking life in the form of the death penalty. Like most things, it is contextual. I would not kill except as a last resort; I believe that a person has a right to make their own choices about their own life, including when to end it; and if it came down to it, I am willing to assist someone I care about to do what they feel they must even when they don’t have the strength to do it themselves. That does not mean I enjoy it, nor does that mean I prefer it. And when there is another option, I will always take it. For me, that is the heart and soul of this Commandment. There is almost always another option, and it is incumbent upon us to find it.