Why the Death Penalty Does Us No Credit

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Under the heading "Crimes and Punishments (Primitive and Savage)," the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics lists possible methods of execution: "Decapitation, strangulation, hanging, stabbing or spearing, cudgelling or flagellation, impalement, crucifixion, drowning, burning, flaying alive, burying alive, throwing from a height, stoning, sending the criminal to sea in a leaky canoe, cutting in two, lopping off the limbs. ... In certain regions where cannibalism prevails, criminals are killed and eaten." One method calls for crocodiles.

The trouble with capital punishment is that as a rule, we can only use one or two of these techniques on any given killer. I suppose that if we were feeling especially indignant, we might start by stoning a guy, then lop off his limbs, impale him, and finally (quick, before he bleeds to death) put him in the leaky canoe and push him out among the crocodiles. He'd get the point.

It would give me pleasure, I'm afraid, to inflict all of these punishments, one by one and slowly, upon the two men who — as you may have heard — engaged in cold-blooded massacre in a Wendy's fast food restaurant in the New York City borough of Queens last week. They herded seven employees together, silenced them with duct tape, and methodically shot each one in the head, killing five, before they robbed the till and fled. They were later arrested. There is not the slightest doubt that the police have the right men.

It would give me pleasure if the murderers got the deaths that they deserve. But I still say, on reflection, that, for the sake of our longer term health and moral ecology, there are some pleasures we should forgo. Killing the killers is one of them.

Some weeks ago, after the state of Arkansas executed a woebegone, deeply depressed mother who had killed her children, I wrote that I had changed my view of the death penalty. While I had once favored it in certain cases, I had decided that capital punishment had lost its meaning amid the general moral squalor and should be abolished altogether.

Of course it is easy to oppose executing an unhinged mom, an obvious mental case. It is something else to oppose executing the feral trash that showed up at Wendy's. But we keep our principles in the hope that they will carry us safely through temptations of this kind.

Some think that inflicting capital punishment is a primitive, irrational transaction. I disagree. Capital punishment seems to me a rational response to certain crimes, and one that is sanctioned by long-standing human custom. It is rational to remove a known killer permanently from society. It is rational to kill a killer as a warning to others. It is rational to appease the community's outrage and thus to reinforce the social contract.

It is, by contrast, irrational to forbid capital punishment. One can support such a course only, ultimately, on unprovable and somewhat vaporous grounds — in the name, perhaps, of a principle of moral evolution, a kind of hope.

Weeks ago, when I wrote that I'd changed my mind, an irritatingly shrewd reader e-mailed me (I'm quoting from memory): "You have come to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons, and because of that, you will one day revert to your old, erroneous view."

What are the right reasons and the wrong reasons? I'd say capital punishment ultimately cannot even be discussed rationally. One's views on the subject emerge from instincts about human nature, from hidden places in the heart. One's instincts may conflict. My disgust at capital punishment, for example, violates my sense of justice and my fierce impulse to retaliate. But I am revolted by the bloodlust in myself, especially when I find it mirrored — honored! — in our culture and in so many of its works. I mean to say nothing more complicated than this: I think that capital punishment does us no credit. Let it go. Find other means.