To Ask a Simple Question

Politicians have gotten pretty good about riling up their supporters by tearing someone else down

By Jim Elliott

It was in 1991, I think, when I was a member of the Montana House of Representatives, there was a bill to outlaw capital punishment. One of the proponents made a very thought-provoking argument for the bill. He challenged each of us to imagine we were the executioner. His argument was that you only had the right to vote to keep capital punishment if you were personally willing to “drop the trap.” (Hanging was a legal form of execution in Montana then, and the condemned stood on a trap door with the noose around his neck. When the executioner pulled a lever, the trap door dropped, and the condemned was hanged.)

It was a very thoughtful argument and I gave it serious consideration throughout the remainder of the debate. I eventually decided that, yes, I could personally drop the trap, and so I voted to keep capital punishment in Montana law. I hasten to say that by 2007 my opinion had swung 180 degrees and I voted to eliminate capital punishment, an abolition that has still not yet come to pass. During that vote in 2007 I asked myself the same question that had been asked in 1991 and decided that, no, I could not be the executioner.

Why the change? By that time DNA testing had cleared enough people on death row to cast doubt on the validity of murder convictions in general, and as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “It is better 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer.”

So, as I hope you can see, it was a very powerful question that in both votes caused me to examine my personal morality.

It’s not often that we take the time to think before we act, but it’s a good idea to do it before we do something that may haunt us later. Politicians have gotten pretty good about riling up their supporters by tearing someone else down. They might talk about beating up someone because of their profession or opinion, and they might ask us to join them in disparaging a type of people who happen to support their opponent. They are speaking to a mob and asking for the mob’s approval of their position, and they get it because they know their audience. The question is, do we join them in their bad-mouthing of others, or do we remember that we were brought up differently and remain silent, or even protest.

We all know about mob mentality, that people are far more willing to do something they know is wrong if they are among a crowd of people who are hell-bent on doing something they would never do on their own. It’s easy to find current examples today on both sides of the political divide, but by choosing a current example you run the risk of taking what should be a philosophical question and turning it into a political and therefore emotional question.

But it’s also easy to find examples from history where enough time has passed to take the emotional or political affront out of them and lay the bare the bones of moral choice.

For instance, would we be personally willing to torture and kill a person because of their religion, their skin color, or their politics? God forbid we would be tempted to do it at all, but we know that awful things have been done for exactly those reasons.

It is also easy to find examples that would normally be a cut and dried decision, but which would be a lot less cut and dried if someone we admired did them.

There are two questions we might ask ourselves before we join the mob: “Would I do this if I were the only one in the audience?” and the even more basic question, “Would mom and dad be proud of me for doing it.”

I realize that we are not likely to contemplate the wisdom of our judgment in the heat of the moment. People have ruined their own lives by doing something without thinking. I picture a person convicted of a crime being asked why on earth he did something that got him into such serious trouble. I imagine them somewhat taken aback by the question, and then, after a little reflection, saying, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Jim Elliott
Trout Creek

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