Friday, October 28, 2011

Reflections on the death penalty in America

originally posted in The Archway

The issue of the death penalty is among the most talked-about conundrums in American society, for it attempts to determine a point at which it is acceptable to end a human life. The recent execution of Troy Davis, a man who many believed was wrongly convicted of a murder in 1989, has brought the issue once again to the forefront of public discussion.

Such an issue is inherently precarious, though practicing states seem to ignore the inherent hypocrisy of sentencing people to death. Practitioners of execution seem to want to have their cake and eat it too, in that they use a form of killing to atone for that same act.

A state-sanctioned execution is naught more than the intentional killing of a person as allowed by existing laws. A murder, by contrast, is the intentional killing of a person in violation of the law. The only non-circumstantial difference between murder and execution is that the latter is permitted by law.

This key difference, which makes one form of killing acceptable and the other intolerable, produces an interesting hypocrisy, for laws are nothing more than societal constructs set in place by humans.

To fully understand the contradiction, one must first accept the old adage that “might does not make right”, insofar as the majority does not necessarily make “right” decisions, merely popular decisions. For example, democratic elections put numerous members of the Nazi party into the German Reichstag in the 1920s.

Though the majority typically attempts to seek the greatest good for the greatest number, their attempts are not universally successful. Hence, it can be accepted that mere numbers do not make something correct in an objective sense.

This casts the concept of laws in a somewhat dimmer light. While laws can be considered honest attempts at shaping society for the better, they certainly cannot be considered to be universally infallible.

In a world where laws are not objective, laws have no more moral validity than the capricious whims of a man who commits murder, and herein lays the problem. When the motivations of the murderer are no less valid than the whims of the society which demonizes him, the majority’s use of might against him constitutes hypocrisy.

Society likes to pretend that acting under the law absolves them of the same sin they demonize by executing murderers. Unfortunately, the inherent subjectivity of these matters means that, though this may be true in the minds of believers, such a statement is syllogistically false.

There are those who may accept their hypocrisy, and instead argue the point that, regardless of the cognitive dissonance associated with execution’s logical inconsistencies, the practice is beneficial.

Such arguments stress the point that the end of a safer society justifies whatever means is necessary to achieve it, even the commission of hypocritical acts. However, the use value of execution over imprisonment is questionable.

When a person is sentenced to prison time, it is incumbent on the prison to ensure the safety of society. Some argue that, because prisons can be escaped, the death penalty is preferable to ensure that violent criminals can never reappear.

While the death penalty ensures that escape is impossible, society can be adequately protected by reinforcing the existing practices and structures of prisons. Such improvements greatly diminish the use value gap between the two methods.

The financial aspect is also a concern in this respect, and while there is no denying that keeping people alive on the taxpayer dime is far costlier than executing them, this problem lies not with the principle of imprisonment, but with the implementation.

This establishes the role of the death penalty not only as a source of hypocrisy, but as a cop-out for those who do not wish to devote time and resources to developing a better solution that does not necessitate hypocrisy.

While people are quick to draw criticisms of the financial burden placed on society by long-term imprisonment, fewer people raise an eyebrow at the societal impact of the practice of execution.

A typical point made to this end is the lack of focus on rehabilitation. Should society’s good be considered the chief goal, as is done throughout the criminal justice system, civilization benefits more from rehabilitating a man than killing him.

If felons, even murderers, were to spend years in an environment of positivity, some stand a chance of being conditioned to refocus their emotions into more positive channels, which allow them to cope with and cathartically express their negativity.

People are largely products of socialization, and this fact can be used to produce immense change, even in criminals. Though not possible in all cases, the general ignorance of rehabilitation is a gross oversimplification and insult both to the practice of psychology and to felons themselves.

The safety aspect of criminal justice is handled as well by a good prison as by a syringe of potassium solution. The cross into punishment and the disregard of rehabilitation is evidence of something more than emphasis on society’s wellbeing.

The sociological and psychological roots of capital punishment’s popularity are rather frightening. They date back to the very roots of civilization, and help to establish vengeance as a universal principle under the guise of justice.

The concept of an eye for an eye dates back to Hammurabi’s Code, and was reinforced by many later religions wherein a god figure would smite disobedient humans. In modern times, god is replaced by the state, but, hypocritically, the principle of objectively-justified vengeance lives on.

The practice of capital punishment falsely gives a majority of humans the sense of superiority over the minority and the individual. Vengeance becomes a universal principle, but bloodlust becomes synonymous with law.

A society which practices the death penalty cannot be emulated, for it is a society that accepts killing as a social norm. Death is the status quo, and disingenuous killing becomes preferable to killing which, if nothing else, has the courage to stand up for that which it truly is.


RJ Advocate said...

I pretty much agree with everything you say. One correction--execution is more expensive economically than life in prison. This is difficult to grasp intuitively, but it's true. To begin with, the trial is $1 million plus more expensive than a non-death penalty trial. The jury must be death-penalty qualified (say they could sentence someone to death). There are two trials--one to determine guilt, one to determine penalty.

The Supreme Court mandates numerous, taxpayer paid, appeals. It takes 3 to 5 years for an appeals-qualified lawyer to be appointed. Housing someone on death row is hugely more expensive than the general population. In California, the general population expense is $47 K/prisoner. On death row it's $137,000. Those are the major expenses I can think of off the top of my head, but you get the idea.

CN said...

Thanx RJ advocate for your well-spoken comments and facts.