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The Woolman Approach

BY enacting a law to reestablish capital punishment March 7, New York State has responded to the will of the majority of its citizens. And by taking some care in crafting the legislation, the state may avoid having the new law declared unconstitutional, as was its previous death-penalty provision in 1977.

So, with the will of the people satisfied, and constitutional rights duly considered, who should object?

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We do. And we know we join many others who will continue to oppose capital punishment, not only in the Empire State but in the other 37 states in which it is now legal.

The saddest aspect of the death-penalty debate today surely must be that the issue of whether the execution of criminals deters crime is no longer paramount. We remain unconvinced by the deterrence argument, and continue to believe that a life sentence without parole is better for a host of reasons.

But the cry today is not for deterrence. It is for ``justice.'' ``Justice will now be served,'' Gov. George Pataki said in signing the bill into law. ``No. 1 has to be justice,'' added the wife of a murder victim after the ceremony. ``Then we talk about deterrence.''

And what is this ``justice''? It is a death for a death. Government-sponsored revenge. The state sanctioning the taking of human lives through the injection of a lethal drug.

Those of us who think of history as the story of human progress can only wonder what will be said years hence of the late 20th-century lapse back toward capital punishment. What did it do to each of us as a moral person? What concept of ``justice'' did we turn over to our children?

Two hundred years ago, John Woolman traveled by horseback around the American colonies. For some 30 years, he spoke with reason and love of the need to abolish slavery. Sometimes he asked only that people ponder the question and give it thought and prayer.

Though many of his fellow Quakers were slaveholders, by the end of his career his gentle words had had such a profound effect that the Society of Friends became the first religious group in America to oppose slavery and forbid slaveholding by its members.

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Those today who share our view of the death penalty as injurious to our moral sense and to the health of our society must take a similarly persistent approach, knowing that ultimately it will win both hearts and minds.

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