My previous post outlined some of the harsh realities of the Death Penalty. That was more than 2 weeks back. So, let’s plunge neck-deep into this post right away. There’s nothing like starting a post with a bitter, divisive issue. Does Death Penalty deter Murder?
The idea of gauging a punishment on its merit as a deterrent – is rooted in the Utilitarian Justice system. Here’s the essence: The threat of the Death Penalty looming large, along with a few highly publicized executions (Example Killings) should reduce the number of gruesome murders. As a supporter of the Retributive Justice system, I do not buy this – but let’s pursue the Utilitarian line of thinking further.
Many people – law-makers among them – believe that the Death Penalty is effete. By Utilitarian norms, it has outlived its usefulness & hence, should be disbanded. What is this belief rooted on? Has Operant Conditioning failed, where Capital Punishment is concerned?
Compare these Homicide Rates per 100,000 Citizens: (Source: FBI, Uniform Crime Reports. Year – 2007)
It may seem that Capital Punishment has failed to curb murder – The fallacy of statistics with a small sample. Shall we increase the sample size?
What about Michigan? It outlawed the Death Penalty 150 years back. Its Homicide Rate is well above Texas, Florida & the US Average. Not to mention Washington DC. Its Homicide Rate knocked the wind off my sails!
Let’s view this globally. Abolitionists use Sweden as an example. What about a few counter-examples?
South Africa has one of the worst crime rates in the world. And BTW, it abolished the Death Penalty in 1997. Its citizens are wondering if Capital Punishment should be reinstated. Guatemala had a Moratorium on Death Penalty since 2000. Its Homicide Rate has been steadily on the rise. In 2008, Guatemala announced its intention to resume executions.
All I’m saying is, some countries & states are peace-loving – like Sweden & North Dakota – and crime rates are traditionally low. Homicide Rate is dependent on several parameters – Death Penalty is only one of them. Unemployment, Narcotics, Gun Control, Policing – are a few of the several other variables involved. Tying Homicide Rates solely to the Death Penalty is unscientific & shows a poor grasp of Statistics & Curve Fitting.
Implications of the 8th Amendment
In most discussions on the Death Penalty, the 8th amendment of the US Constitution is cited. What then is the 8th amendment? The US Constitution has a list of amendments included in its “Bill of Rights”. The 8th amendment expressly prohibits Excessive Bonds, Imposing Excessive Fines & Inflicting Cruel & Unusual Punishment. Abolitionists state that the Death Penalty is cruel & unusual & it should be rejected under the statutes of the 8th amendment.
As an Engineer, I personally find most legal clauses loose, subjective & ambiguous, for our Specifications are precise, clear & avoid the use of adjectives. What punishment could be termed “Cruel & Unusual”? For that, we should understand the penal systems of 1791, when the 8th amendment was ratified in the US. Or 1689, when United Kingdom enacted similar provisions to its Bill of Rights:
People were burnt alive, Disemboweled, Torn into 4 pieces by horses, Drowned by Dunking or Had their hands cut-off.
Such punishments seem horrid & repulsive now, but they were common 200 – 300 years back. The intent of the 8th amendment was to prevent such barbaric punishments from being meted out.
Of late, I’ve realized that the fluidity of the law shows the foresight of our founding fathers. For the laws to stand the test of time, it should be open to interpretation. To quote US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:
The 8th amendment prohibits punishments that were prohibited historically as well as those that run counter to evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.
Most of us abjure harsh punishments. But, a lot depends on our definition of “Harsh”. Nigeria is harsh. If a woman commits adultery, she is stoned. Singapore is harsh. Vandalism is punishable by caning. The common modes of Capital Punishment around the world – Lethal Injection, Electric Chair, Hanging, Firing Squad, Gas Chamber – are they harsh?
It is important to distinguish between a Punishment & its Mode. We may find Gas Chambers reminiscent of Nazi Germany & hence reprehensible. But that’s an indictment of the mode, not the punishment of death itself. The mode of capital punishment has changed over the years. Latin “Caput” from which the word “Capital” is derived, means “Head”. In centuries past, capital punishments meant cutting off the offender’s head – a practice that is found abhorrent today, a mode we would denounce as repugnant & harsh.
How Evolved is our Decency?
Extrapolating Justice O’Connor, the penal system of a land should balance not only its “Evolving Standards of Decency”, but those of humanity. Several exceptions have already been made to accommodate our sense of decency. To cite an example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) prohibits the execution of pregnant women. To unilaterally abolish the Death Penalty, enough people around the world, or at least in the specific country that’s mulling over the matter, should find the very act of the State killing a murderer, however gentle the means may be, grossly indecent. Overpowering public opinion, not the moral indignation of a few.
I do not think, at the time in which this post is written, that there’s an overwhelming opposition to the Death Penalty in the world. As of 2008, out of the world’s 207+ countries, 94 had abolished the death penalty & 35 others had issued temporary bans. The gentler neighbor of the US & the 2nd largest country in the world – Canada, has abolished the Death Penalty. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union forbids Capital Punishment.
Yet, I do not think the above statistics contradict my view. Consider this: The 4 most populous countries of the World – China, India, US & Indonesia – routinely kill murderers. Just these 4 make up about 50% of the world’s population. The populations of Luxembourg or Sweden, that have abolished the Death Penalty, are mere round-off errors in comparison. A Worldwide Gallup poll in 2000 concluded that 52% of the people favored the Death Penalty. Gallup further found in 2008 that 64% of the Americans supported the Death Penalty. None of that sounds like a resounding endorsement for the abolitionists, to me.
Incredibly, while the European Union has outlawed the Death Penalty, public support for reinstating it has been increasing steadily in United Kingdom. UK abolished Capital Punishment in 1973, but large swathes of her Citizens are clamoring for its reinstatement now. And UK is just the tip of the iceberg.
And what of the hand-wringing, that harsh punishments make us coarse? “Make us Coarse”? We are born coarse! Civilization is the tussle between the Ruthless Reptile, the Nurturing Mammal & the Thinking Human in all of us. One can’t force humanity to take the high road. As a die-hard fan of Star Trek, I can’t resist quoting from it. In “First Contact”, Captain Picard says:
The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.
A wonderful goal to aspire for. In a similar fashion, one day, some day, in the distant future, we can aspire to rise above needing Capital Punishment. Only, we have miles to go. I rest my case.