The past two or three decades have seen a growing trend in many countries to re-examine the question of capital punishment. In the view of the Bahá'í community this discussion is a development much to be welcomed. It is clear from contemporary reports in the media, together with submissions made by such responsible agencies as Amnesty International, that the way in which civil authorities in a number of countries are using this most serious of punishments can in no way be reconciled with the principles of the United Nations instruments to which the governments of those countries have subscribed. In yet other jurisdictions, disproportionately high percentages of persons representing ethnic minorities among the executed raise disturbing doubts of yet another kind. Nor can one be indifferent to the body of evidence suggesting that, in a great many cases, capital punishment is accompanied by conditions that impose an unnecessary and unacceptable degree of suffering.
It is now generally accepted that society's most powerful instrument in influencing behaviour is education. The same age that is witnessing the inexorable unification of the human race and the emergence of something that may reasonably be termed a universal conscience, also finds itself possessed of an understanding of human nature not available to previous civilizations. For the past several decades the social sciences have made steady progress in exploring the roots of human motivation and in developing educational measures designed to tap this immense resource. If the results still fall far short of the ideals that have impelled the research, this in no way calls into question the potentialities of the educational process nor casts doubt upon the premise that it represents humanity's best hope for a peaceful and orderly world. It reflects merely the human race's continuing attachment to political, racial, and sectarian prejudices that confuse the goals and severely limit the context within which the educational process must seek to do its work.
If, as Bahá'ís believe is the case, human nature has the potential for goodness, then people tend to be most deeply motivated when they are provided with the opportunity to express the physical, moral and intellectual potentialities that characterize this nature and reflect the attributes of its Creator. In the words of the Bahá'í Scriptures, "some souls are ignorant, they must be educated; some are sick, they must be healed; some are still of tender age, they must be helped to attain maturity, and the utmost kindness must be shown to them."
The earlier these efforts are undertaken the greater and more lasting are their influence. Even among those members of the community where anti-social patterns of behaviour have developed, however, education remains an essential feature of any realistic program of public order. An impressive body of research attests to the ability of educational techniques to modify attitudes and discipline conduct, especially where such efforts are accompanied by action to correct the social injustices that breed resentment and hopelessness.
Nevertheless, human beings are responsible for their actions. As can be seen from the widely divergent types of response to privation and suffering demonstrated by different peoples in the same culture or society, most individuals enjoy a significant degree of choice in the behaviour they manifest. Where educational methods alone fail to induce in individuals behavioral change that respects the laws protecting society, civil authority has the right to resort to coercive measures. Fines, the deprivation of rights and privileges, compulsory labour, and terms of imprisonment are all generally regarded as legitimate options of this kind. Their employment aims at ensuring a minimal degree of security for all the members of the community as well as at protecting a social covenant which has been the fruit of a long and arduous collective effort.
Capital punishment has traditionally been regarded as the ultimate of these legitimate sanctions. The world's deepening appreciation of the sanctity of human life, however, as well as revulsion at the gross abuses of civil power that darken so much of the contemporary scene, has had the effect of undermining the broad consensus on this subject that once prevailed. Sharp differences of opinion exist as to the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent. Public information campaigns by opposing groups point variously to instances in which innocent persons have been sentenced to death in error or to the rising incidence of murders by habitual criminals paroled from prisons. Given the seriousness of the subject, the fallibility of human judgement, and the irreversibility of the sanction itself, it is not surprising that these questions should be exhaustively explored.
Increasingly, however, the discussion has moved beyond these practical and humanitarian concerns to a deeper moral level. It is here, the Bahá'í community believes, that the real issue lies.
In an understandable urge to protect humanity from the brutal practices of the past, concerned people have asserted that society does not have a moral right to employ capital punishment. The execution of criminals is equated in this view with the crime of murder. The State becomes as guilty as those it judges.
Such an argument calls into question the authority that, in the final analysis, must be held responsible for the protection of both society and its individual members. With only a small minority of dissenting voices, it is universally accepted that civil government has not only the right but the responsibility to defend the population in time of war, recognizing that such defense involves actions many of which are aimed directly at the taking of human life. In the view of the Bahá'í community, this principle applies equally to the moral authority of the State in protecting society against attacks on its members from within. In the final analysis, whatever statutory provisions may seem appropriate from time to time and in a given jurisdiction, society possesses an overriding right to defend itself through actions that may deprive an individual member not only of freedom and property but even of life itself.
No less a principle can instil into the hearts of the generality of society's members the conviction that, ultimately, it is justice and not forgiveness upon which the social covenant among them is established. In surrendering to civil government all rights to personal retaliation, however devastating the injury suffered, human beings retain an inalienable sense of what is just. This sense is part of man's spiritual endowment. Appeals for the humanitarian treatment of human error and for patience with the EDUCATIONAL process will ultimately prove effective only to the degree that confidence in this moral order is secure. That, for growing numbers of people in many Western lands, this confidence is being gravely eroded by a prevailing philosophical attitude that places an ultimate and unconditioned value on the individual rights of the criminal seems, alas, all too clear. The danger inherent in such a situation is, Bahá'ís believe, an aspect of the public discussion of capital punishment that needs urgently to be addressed.
The availability of the death penalty as an option in the judicial punishment of wilful murder is the symbol of a commitment. Paradoxically, it constitutes for everyone trustworthy evidence of the enduring value that society places on innocent human life. It is no doubt for this reason that capital punishment has been endorsed by those great religious systems whose primary mission has been the awakening of humanity's capacity for love and mercy. That it can be abused by evil or careless men in no way detracts from the essential role it plays in the moral order. Those who must assume the responsibility of legislating its provisions deserve the understanding and support of the society whose well-being they seek to serve.