Although it has virtually nothing going in its favor and has a great many strikes against it, the death penalty has been the default mode essentially all over the world for essentially all of human history. Why is that? The answer is really pretty simple: the death penalty is heavily favored by conservatives, or those who call themselves conservatives (in our day, they are generally right-wing radicals) and they are the ones who make the rules — rules that usually get changed only gradually, thanks to the arduous efforts of liberals and progressives. And the policies favored by conservatives and “conservatives” tend to be based on emotion rather than fact.
I know, I know, that may come as a surprise if you put stock in the standard narrative from the media. (That’s the “liberal” media of course. How do we know? Because the “liberal” media keep telling us.) That’s a narrative to the effect that it’s really those on the left side of the spectrum who act out of emotion rather than reason. You may have heard the cute little mantra “facts don’t care about your feelings”. It was coined as a clever bit of projection by smug right-wingers to make fun of “snowflakes”. But if you want to know who really acts out of emotion rather than reason, all you have to do is take a look at history, both distant and recent.
History is the story of the struggle to overcome social norms established by conservatives (or “conservatives”) on the basis of passionate beliefs and opinions — the validity of which have been assessed purely on the basis of the intensity of conviction, rather than on soundness of logic or factual foundation.
These have included the convictions that the earth is the center of the universe; that children should work at long, hard labor just like adults; that illness can be effectively treated by bleeding; that mental illness is the result of demonic possession; that some races are inferior to others and therefore should be in servitude to them; that the rich are more deserving than the poor; that children born out of wedlock are “illegitimate” and of lesser worth; that gays are evil, and choose their “lifestyle”, and are a bad influence on children — and cause earthquakes and floods; that positions of authority and influence, and the power of the vote, should be reserved for males; that religion is essential for morality; that aggressive warfare promotes peace; and that an armed populace is an effective safeguard against crime and tyranny. Such beliefs, and many others, have ruled the world; and yet they are unsupported by facts, are often irrational, frequently counterproductive or even harmful, and sometimes downright absurd.
Which brings us back to the death penalty. When you hear conservatives/ “conservatives” discuss capital punishment, chances are you really don’t — you’ll instead hear them discussing capital crime. They’ll tell you all about how horrible some crimes are — as if you didn’t know — and assert that this is sufficient to conclude that the only suitable government response is death. And if you try to offer them any facts about the problems with the death penalty, they’re certain to give you the knee-jerk reactions, “You’re soft on crime” and “You care more about criminals than victims.”
If you’re masochistic enough, you can see a very typical example of this mentality in an excruciatingly inane little video presented by Dennis Prager at his propaganda outlet, PragerU. Yes, it does get weary picking on him all the time; but dang it, he just keeps asking for it. And this silly video is such a perfect textbook example of the kind of nonsense generally offered in support of the death penalty that it might be constructive to examine it in detail.
The title of the video is “Is the Death Penalty Ever Moral?” And that in itself is a bit of a red herring. The real question about capital punishment is not whether it is moral — at least that’s not the only question. Sure, an official policy should be moral, but that’s a given, and a bare minimum. It also needs to be much more: namely, effective, efficient, equitable and constructive. The death penalty, as we have seen, is not; of all the possible functions of criminal justice, it serves only one: it separates the offender from society. But incarceration does the same with far fewer negatives. And even if we conclude that the death penalty is “moral”, that does not mean that it is more moral, or preferable to, the alternative(s).
Prager’s little homily offers only one real fact about the death penalty itself, and it’s decidedly tangential: the death penalty is sanctioned in the Bible. (Actually he says that it carries God’s seal of approval; but he’s surely just basing that on some ancient text or other. He wouldn’t be presuming to speak for God himself. Would he?) Which presumably is supposed to make it not only acceptable but de rigueur — along with, one gathers, other biblical practices such as slavery, infanticide, rape, pillage and animal sacrifice.
His other two “facts” about the death penalty are quite bogus.
First, he states that:
And now, with DNA testing and other advanced forensic tools, it is virtually impossible to execute an innocent person.
This isn’t even close to being accurate. Although it has freed a few innocent people, DNA testing cannot be used in the great majority of crimes . In many cases, because of the nature of the crime, a DNA test cannot identify the offender. In other cases DNA samples were not collected or properly preserved, or DNA testing of sufficient sophistication either was not available or not performed.
The other nugget of wisdom he offers is this:
Moreover, by keeping every murderer alive, many MORE people are murdered -– other prisoners, guards and people outside of prison in case of escape or early release — than the infinitesimally small number of people who might be wrongly executed.
In other words the “infinitesimal” (he doesn’t seem to have a grasp of what that word means) number of innocent people executed is an acceptable sacrifice in exchange for saving other lives, many of whom are not so innocent.
Sometimes paroled convicts do commit violent crimes; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are offenders who would have been executed under a capital punishment doctrine. And you could easily prevent this from happening by just not granting any paroles at all. Of course, that might not be a desirable policy either; but the mere existence of such an option is sufficient to discredit the notion that the only way to prevent recidivism is by killing people.
And what about inmates killing each other or (in rare cases) prison guards? Yes, it does happen, although you’re actually safer behind bars than you are on the streets. Furthermore, not all of these intramural killings would qualify as capital crimes themselves — some are self-defense. In any event, it’s not at all clear why he thinks the death penalty would prevent these homicides, since not all of them are committed by felons serving time for capital-level offenses, and many of them occur in states where the death penalty is, in fact, already in effect.
And that about does it for the “facts” he offers. The rest of the video is just emotionally charged ideological rhetoric. He indicates, for instance, that if the death penalty is immoral, then the people who support it are immoral too. Does this mean that individuals who believe in nonexistent beings are themselves nonexistent? He says that you must support the death penalty if (cue the violins) “your heart, your mind, your whole being cries out for some justice and fairness in this world”. As if it’s just taken for granted that executions in fact are justice. And that…
In fact, many opponents of capital punishment believe that killing murderers is the same as murder. You heard me right – most opponents equate the murder of an innocent family with putting the murderers of that family to death.
Notice that slick transition from “many opponents” to “most opponents” without missing a beat. Wonder if he’d be willing to show his homework in obtaining those quasi-statistics. And note the deduction that if someone should happen to consider the execution of a prisoner to be murder in in itself, that means they consider the killing of a murderer on a moral plane with killing an innocent family. Employing a common tactic, he describes one particular crime in morbid detail and asks: if the offenders in this case don’t deserve the death penalty, then who does?
And then there’s this:
Imagine that the punishment for murder were the same as the punishment for driving over the speed limit. Wouldn’t that belittle murder and thereby cheapen human life?
Has anyone really ever suggested such a thing? Ever? Is he really so clueless as to believe that abolishing capital punishment would result in making all penalties the same? And how about this bald-faced effort to inflame the passions:
And what about the pain inflicted on the loved ones of those murdered? For most people, their suffering is immeasurably increased knowing that the person who murdered their family member or friend – and who, in many cases, inflicted unimaginable terror on that person – is alive and being cared for.
English translation: some people derive a feeling of satisfaction, at least temporarily, from an act of vengeance. And notice the choice of words “cared for”, invoking a common right-wing talking point that prison life is a bed of roses.
Look, there are probably very few among us who would not wish for someone’s death under certain circumstances. (Chances are you can think of a few politicians and media figures who tempt you to whip out the voodoo dolls.) Most of us probably could even feel compelled to pull the trigger ourselves against someone who had harmed a loved one. And the law has long granted leniency toward such “crimes of passion”. But that’s a very different thing from the government adopting a coldly calculated approach to exterminating criminals. It’s entirely possible to feel that someone “deserves to die” without also believing that the state should be in the business of killing them.
Ironically, Prager himself has been known to pontificate about how policy should be based on results rather than how it makes you feel. Actually, this isn’t irony at all; it’s just standard right-wing hypocrisy, deflection and double standards. While smirking at the alleged (and mostly mythical) doctrine on “the Left” of basing stances entirely on feelings, the Pragers of the world do exactly that — and then try to rationalize it with pseudointellectual sophistry — while demanding one set of guidelines for everyone else and quite another for themselves.
It’s particularly noteworthy that rape is among the crimes traditionally designated as warranting death — a tradition, by the way, largely fueled by racism. Rape is certainly a horrible trauma that leaves victims emotionally scarred for life. In most cases, however, the victims are at least left alive. But if the rapist, who is already assumed to be a sociopath, is facing the prospect of execution for his actions, he has a very strong incentive to eliminate the only witness. Remember, what the death penalty teaches above all is that (a) human life is expendable, and (b) killing people is a way to solve problems. And that’s one reason the death penalty backfires.
There is plenty of statistical evidence of this. Sometimes you get striking anecdotal evidence as well. One well-known example, depicted in Joseph Wambaugh’s book The Onion Field , occurred in California in 1963. Two Los Angeles police officers, making a traffic stop, were abducted at gunpoint by the two men in the vehicle, who drove them all the way to Bakersfield. Then, under the mistaken impression that the “Little Lindbergh Law” mandated death for all kidnappings, the abductors killed one of the officers — the other one escaped to avoid the same fate. Many criminals, like supporters of the death penalty, “think” with the gut rather than the brain.
Perhaps the last word, or nearly last word, on this topic should belong to Francis Bacon:
Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.
Capital punishment is the ultimate in revenge; and it has long masqueraded as justice. But it is not really justice at all. It is merely the act of turning private sentiment into public policy. And as the long history of the human race has demonstrated repeatedly, that’s a recipe for disaster.