The tragedy of the Tucson massacre reinforces those who support the death penalty and strains the convictions of those who don't. In the aftermath of such an unspeakable crime, one searches for answers as to why this occurred -- only to conclude that what really matters is that it did and probably will again.
So what happens now to Jared Lee Loughner, who -- in plain sight -- opened fire outside a supermarket on Jan. 8? Nineteen people were shot, six of them fatally. Are we to give him a fair trial and then hang him, which would have been the case in Arizona not too long ago? Or should we consider his seeming mental instability as an extenuating circumstance that saves him from the death penalty but incarcerates him at public expense for the rest of his life? And how long will the proceedings take, putting the parents of a lovely 9-year-old girl through the excruciating pain of watching as they play out? Isn't the prospect of a lifetime of missing her enough, without adding to that burden by knowing her slayer survives?
Loughner's court-appointed defenders probably will argue that he did not know right from wrong under the so-called McNaughton rule or that he was subject to incontrollable impulses, the basic tests for a successful insanity plea. That, of course, is their job, and from the reputation of at least one of his attorneys, it is one she does quite well.
With some similar atrocities, motives were blurred by the perpetrators' deaths. That was the case with the killings at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999 and at Virginia Tech in 2007. The Fort Hood, Texas, disaster in 2009, in which the shooter lived after being wounded, may take years to conclude.
Actually, there never can be true closure in these cases. The relatives of those slain outside the Tucson supermarket and those victims who miraculously survived, like Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., can never be compensated for their losses, although watching Loughner pay the supreme price for all this carnage might help some.
The death penalty has rightfully come under attack at a time when enhanced science has proven again and again that the criminal justice system is not flawless. Innocent people have been convicted and probably some have been executed. The list of those who have been released from death row through DNA testing grows, resulting in several venues declaring moratoriums on their executions and a slowing of the sentencing rate in others. Yet there are cases so heinous and the identity of those who commit them so irrefutable that they virtually cry out for capital punishment. The Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, fit that category. And, if convicted, so would Loughner.
This would then seem to mitigate keeping the penalty for certain classes of crimes that are so egregious as to constitute an enormous affront to civilized society. These are instances, it seems, when even the gentlest, God-fearing among us becomes so outraged our demand for vengeance is almost irresistible.
One could argue all night about allowing ourselves to be dragged into such normally abhorrent feelings, but it wouldn't change the anger and despair. As a father and grandfather watching the funeral of that little girl, I confess that I wanted nothing more than to fly to Tucson, go to the jail and find some way to end the miserable life of that miserable wretch.
Admittedly, the prospect of feeding, clothing and housing Loughner for the rest of his life is distasteful. It is akin to rubbing salt in the wounds of not only his victims but all humanity. Examining his motives and recalling missed opportunities to have headed him off (and there were some) seem utterly irrelevant. The only salient fact is that there are dead and wounded by his hand, and that can't be changed or excused in any manner. Eradication may be the only true justice. Before it is over, this case may test the convictions of all of us.
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.