Monster or revolutionary? Hero or villain? From the torrent of comments on Twitter and Facebook, it’s fairly clear that most put Justin Bourque, the Moncton cop-killer in the same category as Charles Manson, Timothy McVeigh, or Osama Bin Laden. I am glad that Justin Bourque was caught, I am glad no one else was killed, but what surprised me was the amount of Canadians, young and old, male and female, voicing their desire for the shooter to die in a barrage of bullets. Among the comments were even a few requests that Canada reinstate the death penalty.
Social media comment threads are, in the words of YouTube educator Hank Green, “special.” Granted, but they also serve as an raw insight into the human heart.
The irony is that those who so vehemently desire a dead Justin Bourque actually share this sentiment in common with the killer: death is an acceptable response to crime.
From viewing his alleged Facebook profile, I have a feeling that Bourque would say that the only difference between him and these outraged citizens is who they see as the criminal. The same would be true of Manson, McVeigh, Bin Laden, and their followers. But rather than let this descend into a debate on who’s “right” is right, I want to confront this view that death is an acceptable punishment.
On May 2, 2011, I cheered with the world at the news of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. A friend of mine posted this Scripture on my status: “‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?'” (Ezekiel 18:23). I didn’t understand him then, but I think I do now.
Ghandi once said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” The problem with responding to violence with violence is that it only perpetuates bitterness, anger, and unforgiveness. Paul, in his letter to Rome, writes, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
We believe death is an appropriate response to those we’ve vilified because we are uncomfortable with the reality that everyone is capable of such horrendous acts of violence and hate.
The truth is that the same hate and blindness in the heart Justin Bourque can rest in mine. It shows whenever I rejoice in the death of “the wicked.”
So what is the answer to the dilemma? Surely, Bourque deserves death, right? One of my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien, imbued this piece of wisdom to the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: “Deserves [death]! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
A little known fact about Nelson Mandela, the hero of South, was that as a young man, he founded the terrorist group Umkhonto we Sizwe, which was responsible for dozens of bombings, including civilian deaths. Some even called for Mandela’s death during his trial. Yet after years in prison, this same man would write, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner,” and, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
The long-standing philosophy of Canadian justice has been that people can change (although, that may may not have been true in the last decade). And for those of us who claim to be Christian, this is the foundation of our faith and our lives: that those who are evil can be redeemed.
And so, my prayer is for justice, but also for a new Justin Bourque. He may deserve death, but further death cannot bring back the three dead Mounties. What would be best is a young man who is grieved by his crimes, changed in his heart, who becomes a leader in improving Canada in a non-violent way. Life is better than death. Forgiveness is better than hated. Repentance is better than retribution.
The last words of NDP leader, Jack Layton, come to mind: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
After all, if grace can change terrorists and murderers, then maybe it can change me.