On Saturday, 18-year-old Payton Gendron opened fire at a Tops Friendly Markets in the predominantly black neighborhood of Kingsley in Buffalo, New York. During his ten-minute rampage, Gendron murdered ten people and injured three others; he broadcast the massacre live on the Twitch platform. The horrific incident is being investigated as a hate crime, in part because of a manifesto in which Gendron allegedly justifies the attack as a majority white defense against black “replacement” and Jews.
Filming has already been absorbed into the culture war. Left-wing commentators were quick to assert that the Buffalo Massacre is merely further evidence of the grip of white supremacy on the Republican Party and on American society as a whole. Some on the right mumble about the weirdest sections of the manifesto, insinuating that it’s all some kind of FBI conspiracy. These efforts deflect or completely obscure the raw meaning of these killings. Our response to the Buffalo shooting should be that a monster committed a heinous and indefensible act, and that justice demands that we hold it accountable. Judge him, condemn him and put him to death.
This would amount to recognizing the fundamental mandates of morality. Some offenses are so reprehensible that they are unforgivable. To fail to respond to a vicious, hate-motivated outburst with anything other than death is to deny the demands of retribution.
Equally important, Gendron’s execution sends a message to the disturbed few who will admire his actions: Violently embracing your bigotry is intolerable to our society. As I have argued, hate crime laws can be viewed as a set of safeguards, delineating certain criminal behavior as inconsistent with shared values of civic tolerance and respect for fellow citizens. When these laws are flagrantly violated, capital punishment can restore the moral order that the law exists to uphold.
Punishing Gendron may seem so obvious that it is not worth talking about. But the fixation on the vulgar political significance of its atrocity reveals our collective inability to think in such austere moral terms. In particular, taking the killer as a mere symbol of white American depravity relinquishes responsibility for his actions. It reinforces the therapeutic morality, which underpins most criminal justice progressivism, which sees brutal criminals as mere products of their environment, rather than freely choosing individuals guilty of their actions. Punishment, argued philosopher Herbert Morris, is how we treat wrongdoers as fully human, recognizing them as morally responsible agents. The moral drama of retribution must therefore be at the center of our analysis.
Politics plays a role here. Capital punishment is, for no particular reason, inoperative in New York State. Several gubernatorial candidates have already called for his return in response to the shooting; others might join them. Gendron can also be charged under federal hate crimes and homicide statutes punishable by death, as can Dylann Roof, the Emmanuel AME church shooter. But it would force the Biden administration to rescind its moratorium on the death penalty. If Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice is really serious about tackling hate crimes, it will proceed accordingly.
Outrage is the subject of much public debate these days: what outrage is appropriate, which is not, and when outrage should play a role in decision-making. In the case of horrific crimes like Saturday’s shooting, however, outrage is a natural moral emotion that signals a just end. Only a hard heart can look at the brutal death of ten people and not feel it. Putting Payton Gendron to death is just the state’s dramatization of the horror and revulsion that so many feel. Failure to do so would be a rejection of morality and public decency.
Photo by Libby March for The Washington Post via Getty Images