Killing the Death Penalty

In the final hours of September 21, 2011, the State of Georgia executed an innocent man. Troy Davis, born 1968, had been wrongfully convicted and subsequently murdered after spending nearly two decades in prison. In spite of cries of protest from former presidents, the director of the FBI, the pope and countless activists, Davis was killed for a crime he did not commit.

Such is our thirst for blood- and it is blood that we’re after.

Mel Gibson’s a racist lunatic, but this was a pretty dang cool movie…

We might dress it up as “justice” or a “deterrent” or any number of grotesque charades, but make no mistake, it is an emotional drive for vengeance that is overwhelmingly behind this. Christopher Hitchens, complicated man that he was, got it right when he called the death penalty “Human Sacrifice” in his 1997 debate on the subject.


We seem to have, as a society, a twisted sense of justice. We’re happy to serve up a person- any person- for slaughter to convince ourselves that justice as been done. Someone‘s got to pay when a crime is committed, whether or not that person actually did it seems of little consequence to us, as evidenced by the long and still-growing list of innocent men, women, and yes, even children who we’ve sacrificed for our appetites.

For this reason, today we’re going to be addressing the foundations of the arguments in favor of the death penalty.

I. Capital Punishment Has Always Been Used

True, but what about horses?

A little over a century ago, you would’ve been hung for stealing a horse. Any attempt to repeat this today would invoke a torrent of outrage from even the supporters of the death penalty as grossly disproportionate to the crime.

But what does this mean? That every executed horse thief was unjustly killed. Who’s to say that a number of people who we’ve killed today won’t be viewed as unjustly killed by future generations?

Now you might be saying “But Gordon, you heroic avatar of nobility, we have to go on what we understand morality to be here and now. Truth and justice aren’t subject to the ebb and flow of popular opinion!”

I agree completely- nevertheless, we need to bring in a degree of skepticism when we’re looking at crimes that I don’t believe we’re typically employing. How many of us honestly take our culture, our worldviews, and the decisions we base off of them for granted? I’m guessing that at least some of us, if we really examine our motives, won’t find “objective adherence to truth and justice” foremost among them. But let’s move on…

II. Capital Punishment Deters Crime

This is the rallying cry of those who would seek to distance themselves from the portrayal of the pro-death penalty crowd as any angry mob. “We’re not emotional!” they swear, “We simply understand the use of this practice in preventing severe crime from occurring. Our motive is the protection of the innocent, not the punishment of the guilty!”

Now that’s not a terrible sentiment, but when it comes to the death penalty, it’s simply not correct.

In spite of all the studies that have been done, there’s simply no truly accurate way of measuring deterrence. I will point out that, at least in certain forms of organized crime, the danger of being killed exists with or without the death penalty, and that the cartel who you just screwed out of half a key of cocaine has a much less pleasant form of execution in mind than lethal injection.

This kitten just googled what a “Colombian Necktie” is…

Nevertheless, some might take the utilitarian approach of “If the death penalty deters one murder, won’t it be serving its purpose? How many innocents have to be saved for you to accept its efficacy?”- to which the swift and undeniable reply is “How many innocents have to be executed for you to accept its barbarity?”

III. Capital Punishment Is Just to Society

Likewise stemming from utilitarian arguments is the fear that murderers, rapists, and child molesters will live out their days rent-free, with three meals, a library, cable TV, with law-abiding society footing the bill for it all.

“Why should criminals get fed, clothed, and educated at the taxpayers expense when we have thousands of homeless and even more citizens unsure where their next meal will come from?”

That is a decent enough question, and while I could point out that there’s no big push to destroy poverty either, we can’t fall into the trap of pitting one issue against another. Here’re the simple facts of the matter: prison might not be the chaotic hellscape movies and TVs show, but they’re also not exactly 5-star hotels either.

Beyond this, it’s overwhelmingly cheaper to keep prisoners alive for decades than it is to go through the entire (and highly expensive) process of executing them. If it’s a matter of a murderer being comfortable, I challenge anyone to confine themselves to a room scarcely bigger than a closet for a month. Take all the books and lousy food and cable TV you want in there with you- I’ll bet even the most introverted of us will be going nuts by the end of the 10th day. Now imagine the prospect of a lifetime of that. I think it’s for that very reason that some convicts actually request the death penalty, rather than face life imprisonment.

IV. Capital Punishment Is Retribution

There are some who would argue this- in fact, one of the debaters in the video up above is one of them. In his opening remarks, he unapologetically declares that capital punishment is a way of telling the offender that his or her actions are too heinous for them to be allowed to “share the earth” with decent human beings. You’ll notice repeated references made to Adolf Eichmann and his execution for his role in the Holocaust, against whom this assertion was first made.

It’s a refreshing turn of openness and honesty- but it still needs a rebuttal.

If it’s true suffering you want to exact, then where does it end? The death which Eichmann received (he was hanged, by the way) was nothing in comparison to the agony he forced millions to live through. If we say “an eye for an eye”, then what is the solution? Torture? We could force the man to puree himself in a rusty blender and still not even begin to tilt the scales towards even.

I’m a religious person (in spite of the vibe I seem to give off). I don’t know if eternal retribution exists beyond the edge of this life, but I believe that it does.  If we fail to kill a captured murder, I am of the belief that they will be faced with a reckoning one way or another. However, if this life is all there is- if our justice is all that will ever be meted out- then what could be more just, more cruel than a lifetime spent in a little box, reflecting upon what a vile and inconsequential little creature you are? There’s simply no better alternative.

So what do we do then, in a country that ranks 5th in the number of individuals- guilty and innocent alike- sent to their deaths?

Fight it.

For the love of God, fight it. I will not be stuck in the same category with China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. I will not be stuck somewhere between Somalia and Iraq in adherence to this pointless and craven practice. Demand more, people. Write to your state representatives and tell them you will not suffer another innocent person killed or another evil person freed from a lifetime alone with himself.

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7 responses to “Killing the Death Penalty

  1. I’m not sure of where I stand on the death penalty these days, though I’m inclined to agree with argument #3. I think we put far too much of a burden on tax payers to provide for convicted murders, rapists, etc. Sure, living in that tiny cell with some television is pretty uncomfortable, but why even give them the television? I realize that it’s more expensive to administer lethal injection, but I do think we spend entirely too much to keep these people stimulated while they’re in prison.

    As for the argument based on the number of innocent people wrongly executed… Isn’t that more a condemnation of the criminal justice system than of the death penalty? You can’t really argue that the death penalty is wrong for the guilty because it’s wrong for the innocent.

    • Well, the issue here would be one of effect.
      Had a few innocent people wrongly convicted backs in the 90s been given life sentences, rather than the death penalty, the evidence that turned up exonerating them would’ve been able to free them and return them back to their families and loved ones. Hitchens in the video embedded above refers to this as, I think, “a double evil”. Not only is the guilty person escaping justice but the innocent person is being doled out an irreversible punishment.

      As far as television goes, I’d want to know where the line is. I mean, do prisoners need shoes? Or exercise equipment? Or hot water in the showers? I haven’t done the research but I’m willing to bet that prisoners in European countries where prisons look a whole lot more like hotels are typically better behaved with all the stimulation and education they’re offered. I don’t know- I’m just guessing here.

      • I agree with Gordon about the quality of life in prison. I think if we invested more on rehabilitation efforts, we would see a huge reduction in crime overall. This would include treating people in prisons as human beings with dignity, offering them counseling and education as gateways to a new form of life, and forming a transition strategy for people coming out of jails. So, yes, television might seem expensive to taxpayers, but as part of an overall program of actual rehabilitation, I’m guessing it will end up being a lot cheaper in the long run than people getting out of jail and ending up right back in it. Plus, reduced crime, a better society, and a better quality of life for everyone.

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  3. “You can’t really argue that the death penalty is wrong for the guilty because it’s wrong for the innocent.”

    Sure, but that’s an absolutist refutation.

    We might make the same argument against nuclear power, after all.

    Nuclear power produces much less pollution on average, than coal. So that’s good! It doesn’t often go wrong. BUT when once in a small amount of times, iit goes wrong (e.g., in Japan disaster) it produces a horrible mess than can’t really be fixed easily, or perhaps at all.

    That’s the death penalty. It may be the best way to deal with a horrible irredeemable murderer -but when it goes bad by condemning an innocent, that is far worse, not just for the person unjustly killed by the state, whose crime is sometimes just being too poor to get a lawyer, but also because it causes a loss of confidence in the entire system.

    So it’s quite possible to argue that something would be GOOD if it could be applied perfectly – like nuclear power – but bad because when it messes up it creates a problem that can’t be undone (like killing someone innocent , or Fukishima meltdown).

    The death penalty should go away. Vengeance is a human response. An eye for an eye and so on. I’d want to kill someone who hurt my loved ones.

    But from a society’s perspective, vengeance is not always justice, because it can far too easily be blind, or mis-aimed, and death is final.

    Also, on a personal note, I think that the less a nation gets into the habit of killing people, the better it probably is.

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