The world is almost equally divided on the death penalty. Seventy five countries have no death penalty. Eighty-seven countries have a death penalty but twenty of those have not had an execution in over twenty years. Could it be the case that capital punishment, rather than acting as a deterrent, reinforces violence? If we want to curb violence in our communities and in our schools, shouldn’t the first step be to stop the government from executing criminals?
Most Americans favor the death penalty because they see it as just punishment. In other words, the punishment should fit the crime. If the crime is heinous, the punishment should be heinous. This is, of course, a very old argument. It is right out of the Old Testament: an eye for an eye.
But do we really want the government acting as our agent to carry out executions for us? Is this a proper role for our democracy? Although horrible crimes are committed by psychopaths, maniacs and creeps like Timothy McVeigh the state should not kill them. Instead, they should remove them from society and lock them up.
Why? Because it is the better response. It is more civilized to punish by imprisonment than by execution. French philosopher Michel Foucault traces the history of punishment in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. It was not so long ago that we would use corporal punishment on convicted criminals. The movie Braveheart presented a graphic display of the type of public corporal spectacle that was commonly carried out in Europe right up until the late seventeen hundreds. We need to be very careful about what we allow the state to do in our name. You might remember a video of Rodney King being subdued by the Los Angeles Police. Evidently some members of the Los Angeles Police Department thought they had the right to beat Rodney King into submission. From Alberto Gonzales who considers the Geneva Convention quaint, to the American soldiers at Abu Graib who seemed to enjoy torturing and photographing their prisoners: in the right situation, we humans can be nasty.
We know that capital punishment is not necessarily a deterrent. There are higher rates of homicide in states that have capital punishment. There are lower rates of homicide in Canada where they have no capital punishment. In interviews, death row inmates say that whether or not there is capital punishment does not enter into their decision to kill. We also know it does not save us money to have capital punishment because of our costly appeal system. This appeal system is in place because the courts sometimes make mistakes and convict the wrong person (as recent DNA tests have shown).
“An eye for an eye” comes from the Old Testament. Jesus takes the higher moral ground in the New Testament when he says turn the other cheek. Imprisonment is a compromise that lies between state executions and turning the other cheek. You don’t need to be particularly religious to see that it is better not to kill than to kill, that we should only kill when we have to, and that we are better people when we allow the state to imprison our criminals, than when we empower the state to execute them. Our government should represent our best rather than our basest impulses. The United States should join those countries that have abolished the death penalty.
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