What You Should Think About Capital Punishment

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.”

Francis Bacon

A list of nations that have conducted state-sponsored executions in the 21st century reads like a “who’s who” of police states and warlords’ domains. The United States and Japan stand out as isolated bastions of civil liberties and democratic governance on this inventory of regimes willing to incorporate killing into their systems of justice. Yet when one of our Supreme Court Justices dares to look beyond our borders to provide some context for his interpretation of “unusual” (as in, “cruel and unusual punishment”) he immediately becomes subject to political attack from pundits convinced that nothing could be unusual if it is sanctioned by American statute.

Fortunately, the Justices cannot be removed for political reasons, and the best of them are not swayed by rabble-rousing punditry. Still, many American states offer up that peculiar blend of freedom and authoritarianism that makes it possible to speak freely in criticism of public officials yet presumes that the state ought to wield ultimate power over all subject to its rule. The justification for preserving this institution, seen in many parts of the world as a clear sign of barbarism, is dubious at best.

To be sure, executed criminals cannot run loose in society to harm new victims. Though that argument seems strong in its face, at its heart is an appeal to pure hysteria. Escape from high security facilities is far more commonly the plot of fiction than an actual event. If there is indeed a statistically significant risk posed by prisoners escaping from lifelong incarceration, that is a good reason to improve security in facilities holding those prisoners. Whatever actual problem may lurk underneath the politically-motivated promotion of public fear, its unexaggerated scope must be weighed against the problems created by state sanctioned executions.

Some would argue that, without execution as a prospect facing criminals, some would be more depraved and murderous in their activities prior to apprehension. Yet there is another side to that coin. Criminals already having committed capital crimes are free of that restraint. Also, the most nihilistic sort may actually prefer facing a death sentence to facing a life sentence. Since there is widespread consensus that the death penalty should never be applied to petty criminals, this discussion may rightly focus on particularly nihilistic perpetrators. At best, the deterrent value is a wash, since those rare scenarios in which it might be applicable are offset by another set of rare scenarios in which it can inspire unintended consequences.

[warning: PDF link] A pretty solid overview of correlations between the actual risk of execution in a given jurisdiction and murder rates reveals the absence of a credible link. Ending capital punishment may not actually reduce homicides, but it also does nothing to increase that risk. This seems counterintuitive to some analysts.

Yet understanding this phenomenon involves a very simple foray into the criminal mind. Practically nobody engaged in the act of murder is thinking about the consequences of being caught. Premeditated killings typically revolve around a plan to escape suspicion or apprehension. Spontaneous killings typically involve no considered thinking at all. In some atypical cases, murderers simply do not care what will become of them after the deed is done.

The “oh my gosh, I’d better not do this because I might get executed” factor seems absurd when phrased like that. It actually is absurd. This view stands both on valid analytical psychology and the statistics that suggest the risk of facing capital punishment has no bearing on actual murder rates. Oddly enough, the tendency of capital punishment’s advocates to lack empathy does not prevent them from projecting their own sensibilities — especially a fear of punishment — onto hypothetical murderers. Such projections simply promote erroneous thinking.

The only remaining “virtue” some associate with capital punishment involves a notion of justice that validates a philosophy of vengeance. That truly is barbaric. To the degree that crime victims, their loved ones, law enforcers, and officers of the court all become parties to legalized revenge; they and the system around them becomes more corrupt and more prone to excesses of brutality and prejudgement. Bloodlust is an ugly reality that can afflict ambitious prosecutors in much the same way it can afflict cold-hearted murderers. In states where executions continue, winning convictions in capital cases tends to be seen as a personal triumph for all involved.

Hunger for that triumph can, and has, caused representatives of the people to compromise their better judgement. In the past three decades, over 100 American citizens have been exonerated of crimes for which they had previously been convicted and sentenced to death. In those rare instances when evidence emerges to dispute the guilt of a convict already executed, public officials have made every effort to suppress it. It is as if some governors can be just as susceptible to bloodlust as the least solemn and restrained of prosecutors.

Giving up capital punishment does mean that some politicians give up one method of pandering to hate and fear in voters. Likewise, some prosecutors give up a fast track to higher office. Yet society as a whole gives up very little. Take the ultimate criminal “monster” — Osama bin Laden. If he is ever located, he will likely be killed rather than rendered unto American legal authorities. However, if he were tried and convicted, which is of greater use to our nation — a corpse around which our society debases itself in a national celebration of bloodlust, or a caged research subject from whom experts could extract valuable insights for preventing future terrorist attacks? It may be understandable why some Americans want to see bin Laden’s head on a pike. Yet it is neither rational nor helpful to indulge hatred over reason . . . even when the target of that hatred is so despicable those negative emotions border on being reasonable.

Whenever power is to be exercised, usually a range of options is available, some tending toward mercy and some tending toward savagery. Comparing which nations continue to execute criminals and which have banned the practice is one way to put the matter in context. The more our society is able to lean toward mercy, the more we prepare ourselves for a future of greater peace and tranquility. The more we lean toward savagery, the more we perpetuate cycles of violence and dignify the perverse association of killing with justice.

If we were too poor a nation to securely contain the worst of the worst among us, the expediency of executions may constitute a case for them. If ending capital punishment posed any sort of significant danger by way of increased criminality, that too might constitute a case for it. As a rich nation that does not face the prospect of increased criminal menace in spite of embracing this level of mercy, there are no good reasons to perpetuate the killing of helpless captives by order of our own government. There are plenty of sinister emotions driving the push for continuity in this area. To me that seems all the more reason to end capital punishment, and end it quickly.

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5 Responses to What You Should Think About Capital Punishment

  1. TJ Thompson says:

    Of course, I naturally decide what to think from reading a blog titled “What You Should Think.”

  2. Demonweed says:

    Your comment leaves me inclined to believe this was an emotional reaction, not the result of either reading or thinking. It is my intent to promote the latter path, as I believe is evident from my tone even to those who did not poke around enough to get to the mission statement at the start of it all. Still, the old aphorism about horses and water applies well enough to political commentators and reason too.

  3. maxwyvern says:

    I’m curious. How long has this blog been up and how often have you received a comment very much like the first in this thread?

    In the spirit of the season I’ll repeat one of my favorite Halloween stories, sparked by the thought of the subtlety-challenged (and tying in with the topic of this thread a tiny bit). My wife, less than a year out of St. Petersburg, Russia, was celebrating her first such holiday and embraced it ecstatically, as they don’t have anything close to it there. We were invited to a costume party thrown by some of my co-workers, and dreamed up a good costume for a couple of fairly well-read, artistic types. We went as Salome and John the Baptist. As John, my severed head was displayed on a platter seated upon a table with a tablecloth draped around my crouching hidden figure. Salome danced seductively around the table taunting me. As we entered we got quite a reaction as you can imagine, but it became fairly apparent as the evening went on that people just weren’t getting it. I sat down with a Ninja-robed stranger at one point and tried to explain.

    “Well, you know, I’m John the Baptist after Salome, King Herod’s daughter ordered him to give her the head of John the Baptist when he’d offered her anything her heart desired.” Seeing a blank look, I prompted, “you know, the Bible story?”

    He paused a moment, then chuckled, “Huh- I’m a ninja.”

    I realized then we were at the wrong party, and we never really did find our crown. Closest we came was when her sister came to visit and we attended a fairly artsy party as Dali and his Surrealisms.

  4. maxwyvern says:

    “crowd” not “crown”

  5. Demonweed says:

    I just started this at the end of September. TJ Thompson is the first person to express negativity toward the name here, although the same sentiment popped up plenty in a thread of comments elsewhere . . .

    One of my first sessions at WordPress, I noticed a critique of An Inconvenient Truth was getting tremendous readership. Initially I was too unfamiliar with the [warning: unpleasant buzzword] blogosphere to realize the project hosting that “critique” wasn’t really about expressing ideas at all — it was just a place for a very specific sort of ideologue to congregate and share the latest pseudoscience on global warming denial while patting each other on the back for being clever enough to have figured out that Al Gore is at the head of a sinister campaign of ecofascists intent on ruining America.

    A few of them made sport of my blog’s name. I expect some visitors here will in the future. However, I do not see that as a problem. People who are inclined strongly against serious thought will have their emotional reaction and then continue in the search for something that panders to their need for ideological validation. On the other hand, the wee bit of provocation in the title should increase the extent to which the free-thinking majority pauses for further investigation.

    I believe most surfers glance at more pages than they read. I’m hopeful this project’s title may occasionally nudge a passer-by into becoming an intent reader. I think so far any complete piece here stands as an appeal to reason that will provoke thought much more than a call to comply blindly with any particular orthodoxy. If it also nudges some lost causes in the other direction, I believe that is a time saver for all involved.

    In short, I’m not really interested in getting the biggest set of readers I could possibly get. If I was, I’d be doing lolcats or celebrity gossip, or at least pandering to some bogus yet popular ideology. Now, personally, I like lolcats. However, I think what I do here is much more suited to my disposition. I’d rather do my own thing for a few people who “get it” than become a popular success through promoting any sort of party line.

    Maybe I’ll never even have a 1,000-visit day or maybe some professional editor will stumble across this project and compare it favorably with a column he or she currently pays real money to syndicate. In any case, I think the little tweak in the title is a fair litmus test to separate thinkers who might challenge and/or support my ideas from individuals who let political hate pass for political thought. So far it seems like a nice fraction of first encounters turn into recurring readers.

    In any case, thanks to maxwyvern for what I believe to be praise of a sort. I may have already used this somewhere, but in hunting for epigrams I read of an exchange like this . . .

    Some guy at a rally: You know, you’ll get the vote of every thinking man in the United States.
    Adlai Stevenson: Thanks, but I need a majority to win.

    I believe, especially among people who care enough to read and join online discussions, a majority are thinkers. Even if my optimism is misplaced, I still believe it is better to promote thoughtful dialog than to increase the volume on any particular noise machine. Yet I do hold out hope that there is a much larger place for accurate information and thoughtful analysis than the niches presently occupied by genuinely helpful civic discourse.

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