Saturday, December 03, 2005

U.S. Executes its 1000th Person - Not Something We Should Celebrate

On Friday, the 1000th person was put to death since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Is this something we should be proud of? Is this really 'justice,' or is it an act of revenge? While 76 countries allow state sponsored death penalties, most of those nations do not execute criminals with any regularity, and 97% of all known executions from 2004 happened in China, Iran, Vietnam, and, sadly, the U.S. Is this really the company we want to keep?

Polls show a majority of Americans support the death penalty. I wonder why this is in a mostly Christian nation. Many will quote scripture, saying an "eye for an eye." Is it convenient to forget "vengeance is mine (the Lord)" or "Thou shalt not murder"? Or to forget that everything Jesus preached goes against bringing harm to anyone, even an enemy? Why do I know so many who are "pro-life" but also "pro-death penalty?" I'm simply confused by all this, so forgive me for bringing this up.

Many will say that the death penalty is a deterrent for violent crime. Where is the evidence to support that? We have had record years of murders since 1977, so that argument is not much of one. If someone is so enraged that he or she is capable of taking someone's life, it is more likely that they are not thinking clearly about anything, including the consequences of their actions. Will a drug lord or gang-banger really be deterred by the possibility of a death penalty, when they live each day with the possibility of much worse suffering at the hands of rivals?

Then there is the 'what if' response. What if my wife was murdered...would I want to see the murderer put to death? My reaction if that were to happen would certainly be, "Yes, and I'll do it myself!" But if I were to do that, I would also expect to go to jail for I, too, would have just murdered someone, and I would then be no better than them. This sort of action would just be an act of revenge. In fact, when I think about which is worse punishment, I would rather be put to death than have to serve life with no chance of ever seeing daylight again, where one would go day to day for years and realizing your life is absolutely meaningless at that point...I, for one, would lose my mind in that situation, and it would be unbearable.

Is it still right for us to lecture other nations (such as China) about human rights issues, as the president recently did when he was in Asia, when we practice some of the same things as thsoe nations do? We lose some of our moral authority and standing in the world as we continue to put people to death, and I do not enjoy seeing the U.S. in this position.


mark said...

Well, what gets you executed in China or Vietnam and what gets you the death penalty in a court of law in the United States are very different things - both in substance in terms of act as well as process. We have a judicial system and these countries have secret police bureaucracies that play-act a juduciary ( sometimes they don't even bother with even that much charade)

The death penalty is somewhat of a small deterrent for professional criminals in those states where murdering a policeman or a prison guard brings an automatic death penalty charge. They engage in crude economic risk calculation.

Mostly however, the death penalty is a matter of societal punishment and not deterrence.

There are some crimes for which death is the only appropriate moral response and unfortunately, the same empathatic impulse that lead people to campaign to save the lives of egregious convicted murderers will impell them to plead for their release from prison as well. Already there are complaints from human rights groups that " Life without possibility of parole" is also inhumane.

Very simply this is, in my view, a reflex by ppl disturbed by individual accountability and punishment. It bothers them psychologically and will lead them to oppose whatever the " max" might be and call for its abolition.

vonny said...

Hey Mark,

Yes, the crimes that lead to executions are not the same, and, yes, the likely reason we are about the only Western nation that still has executions is because ~70% of the population is for it and poltically there will be no movement to end executions any time soon, but I am not convinced that makes it right. Majorities are not always right, just look at treating Blacks as 3/5 of a person.

In my mind it is still a revenge mentality, and not an act of morality or even justice. I also think, as I mentioned in the post, that, to me, life without parole is a harsher punishment; and I don't have a problem with that at all. Absolutely people need to be held accountable and pay the price for the worst crimes, and wasting away in prison for life isn't exactly a picnic. At least we don't put our society in the position of killing people, and that seems like a moral standard we might aim for. My guess would be a good majority of those who are against executions would not plead for a murderer's release, though.

mark said...

No, it is certainly no picnic nor a guarantee of long life as Dahmer found out

Historical Nitpicking :o)

The 3/5ths Clause was actually anti-slavery at the time of the Constitutional Convention.

The Southern States wanted to count Slaves as " persons" only for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives because that would bolster their power - South Carolina for example had more slaves and free blacks than whites. Otherwise of course, slaves were chattel property. The Northern states refused to agree on both selfish and altruistic grounds.

The compromise in short reduced "The Slave Power" from what it might have otherwise been. I find it ironic that some of the people who complain about the 3/5ths clause would be even more outraged if slaves had not been counted at all - which would have greatly strengthened the hand of abolitionists in Congress and perhaps restricted or abolished slavery decades earlier.

But then again, as bad as the as the state of math, science and reading education is in this country, history is in far worse condition. So the popularity of this misconception is unsurprising.