I’m Glad I Live in New York

Shelley at Retrospectacle asks her fellow SiBlings for their views of the death penalty; PZ responds unapologetically and tersely but powerfully, linking to John Wilkins for the moral argument and Death Penalty Info for evidence that the death penalty is not a deterrent.

While not a ScienceBlogger, or even a small-s science blogger, I must say that PZ actually understates his case. Not only is there no evidence that executions deter criminals, but also the manner of executions is immoral, unjust, and uncivilized. Death Penalty Info links to a study that shows that murdering a white person is several times more likely to result in execution than murdering a black person. The so-called justice system in the US that punishes people in proportion to how poor they are not only makes poor people and minorities take the fall more often, but also considers murdering them to be a lesser crime.

I’m glad I live in New York state not because its justice system is any more egalitarian than this of other US states – it’s not – but because two years ago, its courts opted out of the mad hatter’s party and declared the death penalty unconstitutional, marking the latest addition to the civilized world.

9 Responses to I’m Glad I Live in New York

  1. SLC says:

    Then I guess that you would have opposed executing Eichmann, had you been alive at the time. I would agree that some of the states in the US are entirely too free in applying the death penalty (e.g. Texas and Virginia) but it is an appropriate for certain crimes, such as child murderers (e.g. Richard Allen Davis, the killer of Polly Klass), and serial killers (e.g. Richard Ramirez, the night stalker, who because of the arcane sylstem in California has not yet been executed some 20 plus years after being convicted), and mass murderers (e.g. Tim Macveigh, the Oklahoma City bomber). The other issue relative to the death penalty is the method of execution. For some obscure reason, there seems to be some feeling that the penalty should be applied as humanely as possible. I say nuts to that. The Catholic Church in the 15th century had the right idea; burn them at the stake.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    I probably would have opposed executing Eichmann, yes. And, for that matter, Goering, Ribbentrop, and the rest of the Nuremberg high criminals.

    I say “probably” because with a certain class of offenses, largely related to terrorism and crimes against humanity, executing a person is often the best way of getting rid of him. For example, suppose that Osama is caught; then I’ll have to think of how to balance my opposition to the death penalty with the fact that his followers might commit massive terrorist attacks in order to secure his release.

    That said, there is absolutely no reason to burn people at the stake, except sadism. For the purposes of having a dead criminal, all methods are equivalent, except in the utility to the criminal himself. Since no person but the criminal is affected, the most humane practicable method must be used.

  3. SLC says:

    Okay, how about if Hitler had been taken alive by US or British troops. Would you have opposed the death penalty for him? By the way, nothing wrong with a little sadism. People who deserve the death penalty should be shown no consideration whatever.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    I’m not sure, as I said. If the idea is just to punish, then to see his land lose a lot of its territory, be docile in face of occupation, and be split into two parts, one democratic and one communist, would probably be an even bigger punishment for him. In prison he certainly wouldn’t be able to terrorize Germany the way Pol Pot kept terrorizing Cambodia even after he was ousted.

  5. Durkheim has an interesting take on punishment. He argued that it is not about deterrence as much as cohesion. It is a social ritual that confirms the community’s acceptance of its norms. I would think that most of the supporters of the death penalty in the U.S. today are not at all pragmatic about it, which is why they are unpersuaded by the evidence of its lack of deterrence value. It is also why, I suspect, supporters like SLC think that cruelty is a good thing. The more gruesome the execution, the more the community is reassured that its norms are just and good. (The first chapter of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is a good read for this purpose, though Foucault’s argument is not a Durkheimian one.)

    Those who favor the death penalty in the U.S. tend to support its application when the accused is an outsider — and therefore, in Durkheim’s analysis, a threat. The racist lynching of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the U.S. can be seen in much the same way. The occasion was often a kind of community picnic in which whites would celebrate their superiority and rejoice that the barriers which separated the races were reconfirmed.

    I should say that I think Durkheim’s analysis is useful for understanding the sociology of punishment, but I don’t support the death penalty for that reason. I don’t believe the state should have the power to kill. I don’t find your argument for an exception in the case of terrorism particularly persuasive. I think that a terrorist’s followers would be inclined to attack as retribution for his execution as eagerly as they would as leverage for his release.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Didn’t Durkheim also say that modern societies were organic rather than mechanistic, and as such they generally regarded punishment in terms of rehabilitation rather than boundedness?

    At any rate, modern arguments for the death penalty – not necessarily SLC’s, but certainly the most common one I see employed by American conservatives – tend to invoke the issue of closure. That is, DP proponents argue that executing criminals is necessary to satisfy their victims’ families, using the emotional appeal, “How would you feel if your wife were raped and murdered?” (apparently women are not considered participants in the debate).

    Now, that argument involves plenty of denial – for example, plenty of relatives of McVeigh’s victims said they didn’t want to see him executed, but the government ignored them and concentrated on those who did. Plus, it seems built to persuade rather than to be right. Still, plenty of proponents seriously believe it, even if the government just uses it as a distraction meant to gain votes.

  7. SLC says:

    The problem is, what would one do with an imprisoned Eichman or Hitler? You can’t put them in with the general prison population as they would be killed by the other prisoners (e.g. Jeffery Dahmer and Albert DeSalvo). Therefore, you would have to have special prisons constructed to contain them, at great cost. The issue is, given the other calls on government expenditures, is there anything worth while in keeping an Eichman or a Hitler alive. I think that the answer is no. Similerly with people like McVeigh, Davis, and Ramirez.

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