Thou shalt not murder-Exodus 20:13
The sixth commandment cannot be taken as a prohibition against war or capital punishment. The commandments is set in the context of a people fighting for their lives. It accompanies various other orders, which allow the supreme penalty for various offenses. The Old Covenant is fraught with capital penalties. The people who administered to them began to work almost immediately to make their application difficult to the point of impossibility. Thus has there e'er been the ambivalence of the most offended of persons as regards taking a human life, even if it seems the life taken is the most vile offender.
By the 20th century of the Common Era, Jews came to believe strictly in the sanctity of human life. A life lost meant the loss of that life and all the lives to come from that life. One death might be a thousand deaths or ten thousand deaths or more. The Jewish conscience was tested throughout the century.
Just as the sixth commandment is no prohibition of the ultimate penalty or of armed conflict, it is no statement in their favor. The commandment, like all others, must be allowed to make its statement, to sound its order; only this and nothing more. Most civilized cultures have mixed feelings about war or about capital punishment. Even the ambivalent have less angst about prohibiting murder.
Indeed, this is the beginning of the short-statement commandments. Do no murder.
So, we have to decide about what constitutes a murder only, and that, only, is prohibited in this commandment. What is murder?
Is it other than taking an innocent life? There are already injunctions against the citizenry taking an innocent life.
In fact, however, the greatest life takers of the 20th century were legally recognized government systems in action against their own citizenry. Hitler killed his millions, Stalin his tens of millions, the Cambodian "People's Movements" their hundreds of millions. If so, what are the safeguards against taking an innocent life through the established system of legal life-taking? Where is the line drawn, if any line is drawn at all?
You and I have all seen pictures of negro lynchings in the United States, sans trial, sans review, sans penalty. People made lynchings a picnic event. No one in the pictures feared legal retribution. The system was on their side, stated or unstated.
Abortions, President Clinton offered, should be rare. We might agree and add executions to the list of life-taking that ought to be rare, lest we be taxed to punish the innocent. There is no absolute guarantee of reliability in any system, let alone a legal system of justice meted out systemically by one's peers in a heterogeneous culture.
Granted, we recognize a difference between the dismemberment of an unborn child with an expectation of privacy in its mother's womb and the execution of a convicted murderer. We are still left with the difficulty of executing a person innocent of a crime for which he/she may be wrongly convicted. We are rightly incensed at the exoneration of a criminal on a technicality. Should we be any less horrified by the plight of a poor man who cannot prove he did not do something when various forms of evidence say he did?
The victim of murder is covered in the Decalogue's prohibition. He/she should not be murdered. The person who does the murder is absolutely wrong and has no defense as to his/her legal liability. The system is not in place to protect the rights of the murderer even in its most technical application but to protect the whole culture from participating in a similar crime; the death of an innocent, with the attendant deaths of all the lives that might come from his life.
If legally recognized governments were the great murderers of the 20th century, what group(s) shape(s) up to be the Scythe Wielder(s) of the 21st? So far, the most likely candidates seem to be religious terrorists of various persuasions.
It is probably not too late to tell the government it shall do no murder. It is probably not too early to tell the Church, the Mosque, the Ashram or the Temple it may not take innocent life, neither of its citizenry nor of its neighbors.
Murder ought to be illegal in any system and so deserving of a high penalty. Abortion ought to be regulated and rare. Executions ought to be carried out with the greatest sympathy for the victim, with the most extravagant defense of the defendant and so attendant on the culpability of the culture.