I have been unable to see anything in capital punishment but a penalty the imagination could not endure, and a lazy disorder that my reason condemned.
—Albert Camus, Reflections on the Guillotine
Due to the seemingly unwavering string of acts of extreme violence in America, there has been a resurgence in public debate about capital punishment. It’s always surprising to hear the alacrity of condemnation coming from the mounts of so many of my compatriots. They make it seem like the death penalty is the only rational end to dealing with a mass murderer. Can that be so? After intently absorbing, in person, through the media, off the written page, the arguments of many pro-capital punishment claimants, I struggled to find anything convincing in the conclusions that they reached.
Let’s first tally the three most common arguments that repeatedly came from the mouths and the minds of death penalty advocates: (1) considering the feelings of retribution and need for closure by those close to the victims of crimes; (2) providing a proportional punishment to the severity of the crime; and (3) that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to society. I will now lay them out before you, demonstrating the immorality and illogicality in this style of thinking.
The first argument frequently heard from defendants of this particularly unsettling attitude is: what if one parented, or was married to, a victim of a murder? As if to say this natural human proclivity toward revenge justifies capital punishment. Entertaining this morose idea, I would have to agree that it’s very plausible that I would wish death onto my loved one’s slayer. But justice and human passion are not congruous. If human passion was the best arbiter of justice then why did we, as a society, go to all the trouble of creating law and order?
Secondly, many believe it is morally sound to take from one that which they took from another; in other words, “an eye for an eye, a tooth from a tooth.” Many legal systems throughout history are predicated on that very tenet—none more famous than the Code of Hammurabi. But let’s apply Hammurabi’s code to all crimes. If someone is convicted of theft, do authorities rob the robber? If someone else is convicted of battery, it is righteous to bludgeon the wrongdoer? There’s not much that can be said in defense of the claim that the Code of Hammurabi is an archaic system created by a barbarous mind. But, somehow, it remains copacetic to murder a murderer. The ordering of the American punitive system, systemically, kicks the stilts out from underneath the ‘criminal’s comeuppance’ pro-capital punishment argument.
A third pro-capital-punishment argument, and one that seems to surface the most (especially in the public forum) is that capital punishment is an ironclad deterrent, forcing members of society to genuflect in fear. Jeffery Toobin of the New Yorker recently published an article about the decline of capital punishment in America, which said that 315 death sentences were handed down in 1994, compared to only 78 in 2012. It went on to say that during that same period, the murder rate also plunged, “rendering especially hollow the traditional argument that the death penalty serves as a deterrent.” The article concludes that the death penalty “now exists in a kind of twilight, a fading but still significant presence in America life.”
For a punishment to be a deterrent—an exemplary undertaking—it must merit fear inside the people. Yet, as the passage above points out, the drop in court-ordered death sentences didn’t result in a greater murder-rate. Yet, in fact, the opposite occurred. Even more significant, the murder rates remain stagnant in the 100 or so nations that have wiped the death penalty from their judicial system. Knowing this, is it possible to deduce that capital punishment is an effective intimidator?
Of all the methods of capital punishment, lethal injection runs counter to the claim that the death penalty keeps the public in line. For most, there’s nothing intimidating about a needle; nothing that strikes the fear of God into the frenzied killer seconds before an attack (expect in cases where it fails). Throughout history there’ve been plenty of methods that could very easily deter one away from bloodlust, from the guillotine and the gallows, to dismemberment and a fiery stake. Compared against these petrifying methods, lethal injection seems like a ride on a rowboat. But these historical methods are something, I assert, that modernity has outgrown. Hence, the exemplary argument has no business being voiced in a country that administers its justice through a vein. In fact, if the point of capital punishment is to be an example, then making it a public spectacle should not only be advisable but mandatory; complete with the stark macabre that chills the public’s blood.
Capital punishment, above all things, deems a person unfit for living, and this should never be the concern of “a jury of one’s peers”—putting it a different way: society. Society created itself by unification, so it can, if it so chooses, deem a member unworthy of being a part of the whole. Its concern, concordantly, ought to never extend beyond this question: can we (society) grant one of our own the title of lifelong outcast? By virtue of what society is and how it came about, no graver punishment can be dispensed without the label of injustice.