Speaking of support for capital punishment, approximately 60 percent of Americans still support the death penalty. Why does it persist in this country when the majority of developed nations have abandoned it?
It’s becoming clear to many people in this country that we have a very high number of people in prison and that we are using capital punishment more than many Western nations. When you add it all up, the United States is really quite a punitive nation. And yet, many of the people who created the foundation for this country were sent as slaves, convicts and indentured servants. Our society was built on that — like Australia, it’s very much a part of our DNA. But we don’t want to acknowledge that. We want to put our prisons out of sight, out of mind, and have executions that seem to not be causing any pain and are carried out out of the public gaze because it doesn’t square with our notion of who we are.
Is it just me, or did that not really answer the question? We defy world opinion on the death penalty because we won’t accept that we’re a nation of convicts and other undesirables? Huh?
Anyway, I’ve often wondered about that myself, and while you might think I would seize a golden opportunity to condemn Myrrhkins as ignorant, bloodthirsty barbarians, I’m actually sympathetic to the pro-capital punishment crowd in certain respects. Of course there are myriad issues with the system itself that make the case for a moral opposition to the death penalty, and I’ve argued it many times myself against conservatives. You don’t have to look far to find yet another story of someone who was freed from death row or a life sentence after DNA evidence exonerated them. Then you even have Kafkaesque situations where DNA isn’t even involved, and eyewitnesses retract their testimony, or even admit dishonesty, yet the conviction and sentence are somehow allowed to stand. That’s all on top of the class issue, where poor people may primarily be guilty of not being able to afford competent attorneys, or they may have run afoul of laws reflecting cultural hysteria that disproportionately affect certain people more than others (only 18 to 1 is an improvement?) There are plenty of solid reasons to oppose the entire idea on principle.
But since the constitutional issue of cruel and unusual punishment always comes up in this discussion, I wonder about the seemingly casual way that people can accept a sentence of life without the possibility of parole as being some sort of humane alternative. If you’re willing to accept the idea that there are some people who are clearly guilty and remorseless about it, unable to ever be rehabilitated and reintroduced into society, well, who is it benefiting to keep them alive? I don’t ask facetiously; I myself would rather die than spend decades locked in a small cell or building. People seem to have allowed the Christian notion that human life is inherently sacred to blind them to the fact that pure existence itself, for its own sake, is meaningless. What are we living for?
I remember when Ted Kaczynski tried to hang himself with his own underwear during his trial rather than face the possibility of being stuck in a cage for the rest of his life. I don’t recall clearly, but he may have even asked for the death penalty at one point. Seeing news reports happily describing his new life in a Supermax prison in Colorado, confined to a small cell 23 hours a day, viscerally repulsed me more than the idea that he might possibly feel pain during lethal injection. The man wants to die. He’s never going to be free again. But we’re going to force him to live as long as he can to satisfy our own pointless vengeance.
The idea that a certain number of innocent people will die every year to provide you with comfortable illusions of justice and safety is most certainly one that advocates should force themselves to consider deeply. What does it say about you if you accept that trade-off? But equally imperative is the need to consider what it says about us when we’re willing to prolong a person’s punishment and torment when there’s nothing to be gained from it, the need to consider what it really means to live, suffer and die.