Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Death Penalty

It's been a while since I've written regularly here. I'm not going to apologize (although I really want to) but I do hope for this to be a new phase of the blog. As a result of this, I may end up rehashing some old ideas. This isn't done to avoid writing new material so much as it is done to avoid rereading everything I've posted over the years and making sure I'm not overlapping too much. If I don't care, then it doesn't matter. Also, I am sure that my views have changed on a variety of subjects.

Capital punishment. I am against it. And as I consider my arguments, I realize that this may end up being a fairly short post.

For our society to be successful, we have to all agree on a set of guidelines that we call morals. Obviously these guidelines aren't really discussed. They've long since become instinctive. We all understand the basic premises of the Golden Rule; we all understand that killing and stealing and lying are wrong. We don't have to take time to consider how our actions will impact society as a whole when faced with a moral decision (most of the time). Bees have an entirely different, entirely alien moral code from ours, but it serves the same essential function: propagating a successful society.

Our society deals with rule-breakers by removing them from the system. This can be time out for toddlers or prison for adults. Or, depending on the society and the offence, it can be death. I'd be a fool to insist that there be no punishment for crimes, but the purpose of punishment should be to allow the system to operate more smoothly. An efficient justice system should do more than just remove an offender, it should also serve as a deterrent.

Revenge is never a good idea. It seeks to address a wrong with a wrong. This is what capital punishment is. It is vengeance. All arguments for capital punishment seem to stem either from emotion or ignorance. The iconic emotional argument is the Dukakis question: "If your wife was raped and murdered, would you favor the death penalty for the murderer?" It's a ridiculous question. Obviously if my wife were raped and murdered I would want the murderer to die. I would want to kill him myself. I might even want to torture him to death. Our passion for vengeance is strong. That does not make it right. The other argument is that it acts as a strong deterrent. This is just clearly false. A brief look at statistics show that violent crimes do not decline at all when a death penalty is present. This graph shows that the murder rate actually increases - granted, it is from an anti-death penalty website, but I found dozens of these stats and none showing an actual decrease in murders. For my argument I don't need to show that capital punishment makes things worse, simply that it doesn't help.

But what is the alternative? Life in prison? Clearly there are people who need to be permanently removed from society. Serial murderers, sociopaths, rapists, pedophiles, etc. should not be slapped on the wrist and sent to a therapist for six months. They should be incarcerated for the rest of their lives. So why not the death penalty for these people? Now the argument is simply one of efficiency. Now the argument becomes about money and how much it will cost to keep the prisoner alive vs. how much it will cost to kill him. Or her. I don't really mind this discussion, but it loses much of the righteous fire that the previous two arguments had.

Well, so what? So what if I disagree with the reasoning? I mean, I do agree with the measure of justice that is being carried out, even if I think that life in prison is better than a death sentence, so isn't it just a matter of degrees? For one thing, the current methods of execution are not painless. The lethal injection chemicals aren't even used by vets to euthanize dogs and cats because they are so unpredictable and potentially painful. I believe that lethal injection is the only execution method in use in the United States, but around the world there are firing squads, gas chambers, electric chairs and hangings. None of these are painless; I understand that comfort isn't really a huge concern when killing convicted offenders, but mistakes in sentencing are incredibly common. Many on death row still affirm their innocence, and if even one man is executed incorrectly, then the entire system is a failure. But we know that many more than just one have been wrongfully found guilty. We are human, after all, and we do make mistakes. The death penalty is one mistake that cannot be unmade.

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