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Editorial: A long fight against the death penalty


Thursday, March 09, 2017

Mike Farrell, an activist and actor best known for playing Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt on the classic TV show M*A*S*H, was in Concord on Friday night at the invitation of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The Monitor was there, too, to be recognized along with the Portsmouth Herald and the Keene Sentinel for our “persistent editorial advocacy of death penalty repeal.” We have tried many times over the years to raise awareness about the most barbaric component of a deeply flawed criminal justice system, but our contribution feels infinitesimal compared to what Farrell has been doing all of his life.

For those who lost track of Farrell after M*A*S*H ended its run in the 1980s, you should know that he has continued to do what he has always done, even before he gained television fame: tirelessly fighting for human rights.

“I learned more in jails and prisons that crush already wounded souls,” he told the audience. “It schooled me, opened my eyes and my heart, and kick-started a life of investigation and involvement around issues that chew people up.”

Farrell exudes kindness and empathy, but he is no bleeding heart. If we are angry that the death penalty still exists here in New Hampshire, and we are, Farrell is apoplectic. “I hate this system,” he said. And then he said it again, and again, and again.

“I believe we are committing a kind of national, moral suicide by accepting the idea that disposing of certain human beings is right, proper and consistent with our principles,” he said.

As Farrell will tell you, it’s difficult to argue with a death penalty supporter. You can cite statistics on wrongful convictions, racial bias, the cost of executions versus life imprisonment and how capital punishment has never nor will it ever deter violent crime, but they cannot see beyond “an eye for an eye.” To many of them, the death penalty is justice in its purest and simplest form. Death penalty supporters long for a utopia where the threat of execution is enough to prevent murder. When that theory is revealed as fantasy, they comfort themselves with the idea that capital punishment eliminates, one by one, the worst among us, the unredeemable.

But what they don’t see is the truth that is so clear to Farrell and other abolitionists, and so many others before them.

Albert Camus, who wrote for a French resistance newspaper during World War II and was witness to the worst human atrocities imaginable, put it this way in a post-war editorial series titled “Neither Victims Nor Executioners”: “The world people like me are after is not a world in which people don’t kill one another (we’re not that crazy!) but a world in which murder is not legitimized.”

That is the purest, most unassailable argument against the death penalty. Whether you believe somebody deserves to die is irrelevant; the state shouldn’t be in the business of taking lives. Capital punishment is murder legitimized.

We leave the final words to Farrell: “Please consider four simple hypotheses: One, no matter how deeply it may have been buried, there is intrinsic value in every human being. Two, no one is only the worst thing she or he has ever done. Three, no matter the horror of the circumstance presented, there is always a reason for human behavior. And four, state killing lowers the entire community to the level of its least member at his or her worst moment.”

(To read the full text of Mike Farrell’s address, visit nodeathpenaltynh.org.)