My Win-Win Alternative to the Death Penalty

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In a column a few days ago, I stated that I had changed my mind about capital punishment — that where once I thought execution a good idea in some cases (because I believed the social contract called for it), I have for various reasons come to oppose it.

Touching this hot button brought down a cascade of e-mail. Bleeding hearts congratulated me. Most of the mail called me an idiot, and, in a manly way, demanded even more blood (including maybe mine). Some of the manliest mail came from women. So much righteous clarity put me off balance. How do you rebut the assertion that the only good homicidal maniac is a dead homicidal maniac?

So I set about trying to find a way to reconcile my old point of view with my new one — a way to have my cake and eat it too: What I'm looking for is a win-win alternative to capital punishment.

I have a few ideas. They involve contracting out the bad guys, putting monsters to practical tasks, earning money that might go to the families of their victims, thereby presumably satisfying everyone. I call it "smart justice." Capital punishment is wasteful. Let's use everything but the squeal.

  • Russell Crowe's new movie, "Gladiator," suggests a creative variation on capital punishment so obvious that I am amazed it has not been implemented already. Why not have them fight one another to the death in the arena? This has huge cable television possibilities, taking wrestling to a new level, where entertainment and judicial spectacle would merge. The classic of that latter genre, O. J. Simpson, had everything — except that the other boot never dropped. The killer or killers are still at large! In any case, prime-time gladiator shows would ensure dramatic balance, the blood of the crime answered by the blood of the arena.
  • How about a gladiatorial solution with a humanitarian twist? A United Nations troubleshooting, Foreign Legion—type force, a legion of the damned. The fact that so many U.N. peacekeepers have been taken hostage in Sierra Leone points up the need. Employ murderers in their natural metier — killers for peace, the Dirty Dozen on a grand scale. They could have settled Kosovo in a couple of weeks.
  • The entrepreneurial approach: Winston Churchill mordantly described the traditions of the British Navy as "rum, sodomy, and the lash." A cruise line run along Churchillian principles — call it RS&L Cruises — would find a niche market and provide appropriately punitive employment for killers: Call them dead men rowing. Invoke the British naval tradition along with ancient Greek and Roman practice by putting convicted killers to work below decks as rowers for the triremes of RS&L Cruises — the holiday with frisson. The drum beats cadence, you almost feel the sting of the lash. Tropical rum drinks are served topside. Win-win: Chained to their oars, the rough trade keeps in shape and discharges its murderous hostilities by rowing for 16 hours a day. The niche constituency has a hell of a vacation.

Other possibilities:

  • A worldwide mine-clearing operation using our ferocious expendables in the fields of Cambodia and elsewhere, a way of saying thanks to Princess Diana by carrying on her work.
  • Recent reminders of the pesky Fidel Castro suggest another win-win: Mount a new Bay of Pigs invasion using serial killers, axe murderers and other clockwork oranges and fruitcakes. It would be a kind of reverse Mariel boatlift. What's to lose?
  • Why not generate electricity (killerwatts!) by hooking up murderers to generators — a sort of TVA project. Instead of wasting electricity on electric chairs, have the boys grind away on treadmills or handcranks for the rest of their natural lives. Thus, out of their darkest, feral private energies would flow... light for the people! Win-win again!