How can a nation call itself civilized if it executes its own citizens?

The story goes like this. A famous scientist whom you’ve likely never heard of was in China for several years excavating a famous archaeological site that you certainly have heard of. During that time, he felt the need, as we all do now and then, to hold in his hand a defleshed human skull. It would be nice to have available the skull of a modern human, in order to compare it with the skulls of not-so-modern humans he was busily digging up.

So he inquired.

He asked local officials and notables who might be able to help him with such a thing. Perhaps a physician or a teacher would know where there was a skull he could borrow. Eventually, word got beyond the small village he was working in, and in the fullness of time, someone who was able to help heard of his request. It was the regional sheriff.

So one day, the scientist was called away from the excavation site because the sheriff had just arrived. He took the path down to the where the village road crossed by his house, and there was the sheriff standing across the yard by an ox-drawn cart.

“Are you the bone doctor?”

“Yes.”

“The one digging the old caves?”

“Yes.”

“You wanted bones? I’ve got them for you.” He motioned towards the cart with his chin.

And the scientist walked over to the Sheriff and the cart, thinking … there must be a lot of bones in there to require such a cart. As he got close enough, there was a bit of a smell, then as he got even closer, there was a bit of a sight. Inside the simple wooden cart were the bodies of a half dozen or so dead men.

“Prisoners. Executed. You may have them.”

The scientist was horrified, mortified, and totally WTFified. He was hoping that some doctor or teacher would have a teaching skull that he might borrow. He had no idea that he would be presented by local authorities with a veritable pile of actual recently dead people. Having anything to do with this would be against all ethics, and the fact that he considered the ethics is a positive statement about anthropology, because this was decades before IRB review of research.

From experience, he knew that there was no easy way to refuse this assistance without making people feel very badly, and damaging his network of contacts that had, inadvertently but quite effectively yet ghoulishly, served him in this case. But he simply could not accept these bodies. It was out of the question.

Then, gazing into the cart of carnage, he noticed something that would easily get him out of this, with no one losing face.

“There are no heads,” he said, staring down at the decapitated corpses, hoping desperately that there was not a bag of heads somewhere around that he had not yet spied.

“No heads. The prisoners were executed. The heads cut off.”

“Well, then, I don’t have much use for them. I need the heads.”

Then, suddenly realizing the potential implications of what he had just said, he added, “And they have to be processed … cleaned and prepared … just right, or they are of use. Only an expert can do that.”

He repeated that statement a few times using different terms, for “process” and “cleaned” and “professional” and so on, to avoid any confusion. In the end, he was confident that he had made it clear. Unless the bones consisted of skulls, and the skulls professionally prepared for use in an anatomy or medical school class or something similar, he had no use for them.

The sheriff shrugged, not really caring one way or anther because he was, after all, only a few kilometers off of his route to the graveyard where the bodies would be dumped, said his good bye’s and left.

And the scientist, confident that he would not be served up any more dead prisoners, returned to his excavation.

A month or so passed, and there was no more talk of skulls and bones for comparative uses. The scientist resigned himself to the fact that he would have to wait until he returned to the capitol, where he would have access to a medical school, to make his one-on-one comparisons between a modern human and this newly discovered “ape-man.” Which was all well and good. It was a crazy idea anyway.

Then, the sheriff arrived again, and the scientist was called from his work to greet him. On the way he asked his assistant, “Did he bring dead bodies again?”

“No, he did not,” was the reply, which relieved him. So when he saw the sheriff he greeted him warmly, and offered tea.

“Thank you, but no. I have no time. Perhaps another day,” said the sheriff, from his place standing on the front porch of the scientist’s dwelling. “But I have something for you.”

And the sheriff pointed with his chin over his shoulder across the yard, where the old carnage cart was parked, two oxen dozing at the yoke and a half dozen men sitting in the back, anxiously observing the doctor and the sheriff, and bound with thick ropes.

“Prisoners,” the sheriff said.

“Prisoners?” the scientist said, comprehension utterly evading him.

“You process them the way you like. I’ll come by tomorrow to pick up the oxen and the cart.”

And with that the sheriff strode off to carry out other important business.

That was China, where most people seem to live, and it turns out, where most of the people who are executed these days are executed. There is an effort to change that. NPR has the story. The number executed in china is

… believed to be nearly as much as all other countries combined. The human-rights group Amnesty International says China executed more than 1,700 people in 2008.

Legal experts are watching the case of a man in southern China who was sentenced to death three times — and then spared execution three times — to see whether recent legal reforms will save his life.

In 1983, Beijing wanted to punish criminals faster, so it gave provincial courts the final say over executions. It took back that prerogative three years ago.

It should be noted, and it is rather annoying that the NPR article does not (nor does Amnesty International rhetoric, apparently), that the rate of execution in China is lower than other countries. Iran and Singapore execute more people per capita. China, unlike the United States, does not execute people under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.

Prisoners are injected with poison or shot. The event is not supposed to be public but it seemingly is at least on some occassions. Details, statistics, etc. are a state secret, although the family of the executed individual is notified after the execution is completed. If the execution is carried out by shooting the prisoner, this is done with a single rifle bullet to the head. The family is generally charged for the bullet. High officials and notables are executed with lethal injection, which is considered to be easier for the prisoner. (source)

Here is a moving and disturbing description of an execution in Zhengzhou in 1990.

ResearchBlogging.orgA long as we are on the topic, I’d like to point out some scholarship on the issue of capital punishment.

A law review article by James Liebman (2007) asks the question: Does “…the claim of irreparably fallible death penalty decisionmaking applies to the Supreme Court itself”? Liebman argues that ”

…the best evidence that human institutions cannot cope with the enormity of capital decisions is the Court’s own stance on the penalty. For forty years, the Court has recognized the need to set complex constitutional standards to govern frontline death penalty decisionmaking and yet has refused to apply those standards to review the resulting decisions and patterns of decisions, instead shunting off that responsibility to the very actors the Court claims the constitutional need to regulate.

Liebman’s article is quite interesting and differs from the usual discussions of the death penalty as a deterrence. This, looking at the fallibility of the system, does seem to be the new trend, and I suppose that is good. But I prefer another argument. If your child is sent home from daycare because he bites another kid, do you bite him? No, I didn’t think so. Now, why is that?

Let’s beat the Chinese in the race to civilization. Put an end to this practice in the United States now.

Liebman, James S. (2007). Slow dancing with death: The supreme court nd capital punishment, 1963-2006 Columbia Law Review, 107 (1), 1-130

Comments

  1. #1 Mu
    June 23, 2010

    Greg, is your opposition to the death penalty absolute? Would you have executed Adolph Hitler (Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, the guy that sold the adulterated baby formula in China to make more money, take your pick)?
    If so, what’s your idea of just punishment in those cases?

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2010

    I want them all tortured and killed. But my idea of “just punishment” is human and flawed, and not relevant to the question.

  3. #3 Irene
    June 23, 2010

    “If your child is sent home from daycare because he bites another kid, do you bite him?”

    Greg, sometimes, that’s what people do. My first kindergarten teacher once bit me on the hand as a deterrent for biting other kids. (It actually worked, because I was so stunned by the enormity that an adult would do that. Also, I was four, so the lady was a lot bigger than me and I felt a bit like a mouse in front of a cat.)

  4. #4 Ronald
    June 23, 2010

    Events in Ohio and Texas show innocent people have been sentenced and executed. Power will be abused. Yet there are extreme cases where it’s justified IMHO. Those cases shouldn’t take 20yrs., like the recent Utah execution. There are plenty of examples of serial killers, domestic and international. Some people just don’t deserve to live. As usual, moderates like me get flack from both sides.

  5. #5 Andrew
    June 23, 2010

    Irene, you were abused.

  6. #6 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    June 23, 2010

    My main objection to Capital Punishment is that it is irrevocable. When I lived in Dallas, Randall Dale Adams was freed following the release of the documentary “Thin Blue Line,” which showed his innocene and led to a retrial. Joyce Brown had been convicted of murder but was then exonerated by real evidence (as opposed to eyewitness testimony.) There ain’t no takebacks in state-sponsored killing.

  7. #7 Thomas
    June 23, 2010

    “How can a nation call itself civilized if it executes its own citizens?”

    This statement bothers me. It implies that it is more acceptable to execute citizens of other nations. A form of narrow nationalism that is definitely not civilized.

  8. #8 Dan J
    June 23, 2010

    I am one-hundred percent against the death penalty. My reasons, unlike some others I’ve discussed it with, have nothing to do with any compunction about taking the life of another human being.

    Persons such as John Wayne Gacy do not, in my opinion, deserve a long and peaceful life (after their crimes have been discovered and admitted to).

    My primary reason for being against the death penalty is my lack of trust in our so-called criminal justice system. Innocent people sometimes go to prison. Innocent people sometimes are coerced into confessing to a crime they did not commit.

    District attorneys are sometimes rather caught up in achieving a conviction by any means, no matter the actual guilt or innocence of the accused. Courts don’t determine truth or facts. They determine who presents the better argument.

    A signed confession of guilt is not always the ultimate truth either. Let’s not forget that questioning by the police is not required to be pleasant. You can be kept awake and questioned for many, many hours. The police officers are allowed to lie to you in order to get you to say what they want you to say. How many of you think you could get past even their rather mild interrogation techniques without breaking down and confessing to being the man on the grassy knoll who actually shot JFK, as well as the true kidnapper of kidnapping of Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr.?

    Our system isn’t foolproof. I won’t trust my own or anyone else’s life to a system that relies on extremely fallible human memory and decision-making to determine guilt or innocence.

  9. #9 Rob Jase
    June 23, 2010

    Of course civilized countries execute their citizens. Why just look at Utah & Texas.

  10. #10 Liz
    June 23, 2010

    Thomas there is no possible reading of that statement that implies what you say it implies.

  11. #11 Mu
    June 23, 2010

    Greg, I think it’s very relevant to the question, as shown in some of the later comments. People are claiming to be against the death penalty because it’s not fairly applied, can hit innocents, doesn’t deter etc. I completely agree on those points.
    But I want the option to have crimes against humanities, where there’s usually not a question of guilt, punished by death. Hitler was supposedly in declining health when he committed suicide, but give him another 10 years in jail if he would have been captured. That comes out to about 6 sec of jail time per holocaust victim, 2 sec if you add all the other victims of WW II.
    Some crimes have only one appropriate punishment.

  12. #12 Nemo
    June 23, 2010

    So, don’t keep us in suspense… what did the scientist do with the prisoners?

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2010

    Mu, I believe there are a number of reasons to have a death penalty and a number of reasons to not have a death penalty. Among the reasons to not have one, I would not include that it is not just. It can be just by a certain line of reasoning. But justice does not equate to being civilized … though there is a rough correspondence.

  14. #14 daedalus2u
    June 23, 2010

    I am completely 100% irrevocably opposed to all executions. The stated fundamental premises of execution are all fatally and irredeemably flawed.

    Killing someone does not mitigate what ever “crime” the prisoner has committed. It does not provide compensation to the victims, it does not lessen the severity of the crime, it does not deter future crimes, it does not “balance” the evil of the crime.

    The only purpose of executions is to de-humanize individuals, and to de-humanize them so much that they are no longer sufficiently human that they have a right to not be killed.

    In some places, that dehumanization process is trivial, and the “leader” can do it at a whim. That is what Stalin did, what Hitler did, what Mao did, what Pol Pot did.

    It is also what Governor of Texas Rick Perry did when he allowed the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham to go forward.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cameron_Todd_Willingham

    Rick Perry has covered up the investigation by replacing experts with political hacks.

    The fundamental motivation behind executions is to instill fear in the population, to induce Stockholm Syndrome, and to increase the political power of political “leaders” by dehumanizing some fraction of the population, the fraction that is least like the political “leaders”. That dehumanization to the point of execution compels the rest of the population to try and be a good follower of the political “leader”, so that they won’t be dehumanized to the point of execution either.

    In the story linked to above, the prosecutor said (in the penalty phase of the trial) that “Willingham’s tattoo of a skull and serpent fit the profile of a sociopath.” (see wikipedia on it). It is classic “othering”, he is different from me, I don’t understand him, therefore he is evil and should be killed.

    In this particular case, he was offered life in prison in return for a guilty plea which he refused because he said he was innocent. If the state is willing to give him life in prison, what is gained by killing him? The only thing that is gained is the political power of the “leaders” who work the process to have him killed.

    It is the process of dehumanizing individuals so much that they can be killed is what is so damaging to society and to civilization. It is not about saving the life of the prisoner, it is about saving the humanity of the civilization. A civilization cannot be humane if it dehumanized any individuals to the point where they can be killed.

    To answer Greg’s question, no, a country is not civilized if it executes individuals. It puts inordinate power, the power of life-and-death in political “leaders”, and like all power, it corrupts. It corrupts absolutely. The “leaders” act to protect their own power, as Rick Perry has done, as the fire investigators have done, as the prosecution has done, not to find out the truth, or what is factually correct, but what preserves the power of the “leaders”, which is more important to the “leaders” than is an innocent man’s life.

  15. #15 Irene
    June 23, 2010

    @ Andrew: Oh, I know that.

  16. #16 Coriolis
    June 23, 2010

    While some level of justice is necessary, it is all too easy to put too much emphasis on justice as opposed to other concerns in a society. Especially because there is no absolute standard of justice – what is “just” changes with society and time. Most americans think that to satisfy their sense of justice particularly heinous criminals should be executed – but not tortured. In many other societies torturing and killing these (and other) criminals was thought to be necessary for justice to be maintained. In still other societies, life in prison is deemed to be sufficient.

    And I think Thomas was just pointing out that a blanket statement like that very obviously leads either to pacifism or hypocrisy. Which may well be where you want it to lead to, or it may not be.

  17. #17 Stephanie Z
    June 23, 2010

    Coriolis, why does it lead to hypocrisy? Thomas’s mistake is in thinking that Greg, by saying that a particular behavior is uncivilized, is endorsing any and all other behaviors as civilized. That’s ridiculous on its face.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2010

    Coriolis, Liz was right about Thomas’s statement regarding what I said. That was not a blanket statement about anything. It was an explicit statement with a focus and an internal logic, that has a crystal clear meaning. One may disagree or agree with it, but Thomas’s “implication” is strange.

    Hey, I’m out of crackers. In a few minutes, I’m on my way to the grocery store to get some.

    Would you assume that I’m not also stopping at the drug store because I didn’t mention it?

    How the policies of a nation affect the way that nation or its agents treat other people is not only an important issue that is not being discussed in this thread (so far), but it is also something I’ve discussed at length on this blog and am very concerned a bout. Were I to assume that Thomas is a regular reader of this blog, I’d be rather offended that he thought I’d take such a laizzes faire attitude about that topic. In fact, he clearly isn’t and simply made a misinterpretation.

    My statement that I don’t want to live in a nation with a death penalty does not mean that I want some other people somewhere else to do bad stuff to other people.

  19. #19 Yahzi
    June 23, 2010

    If your child is sent home from daycare because he bites another kid, do you bite him? No, I didn’t think so. Now, why is that?

    The reason you don’t bite him is probably because the other kid already did it. It is automatic, instinctive human nature to respond in kind. It is also the basis of morality.

    The reason we kill people who kill people is not because killing people is inherently wrong; it is because the basis of morality is reciprocity. You get what you give. If you smack people on the back of the head, you’ll get smacked on the back of the head. If you kill people, you’ll get killed.

    The notion that “killing is bad” is a derived moral, not a primary one. As a technologically sophisticated society you can make a strong argument that that derived moral should be followed. But as a fundamental moral argument, the death penalty is sound.

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2010

    The reason you don’t bite your kid is because it was wrong when he bit someone else and it is wrong to bite him.

    The reason you don’t kill a person if you’re the state is that ou are busy telling people to not kill each other because it is wrong. Interesting that you don’t think one human killing another is not inherently wrong. Why is that?

    There are are other reasons to not have the death penalty as well, of course.

  21. #21 Al West
    June 23, 2010

    What does the death penalty actually do, other than end life? In the UK, they haven’t had the death penalty for over forty years. Is the UK lacking a strong deterrant to commit crime? Based on crime statistics as compared to the USA, it would seem that no, it isn’t. Canada hasn’t executed anyone since 1962 and abolished capital punishment in, I think, 1976. Does Canada have an astronomically high crime rate that has resulted from not having the government kill people? No.

    Is it ever morally right to kill someone who isn’t an imminent threat to others and who can safely be put in prison?

    No.

    And that’s the discussion as far as I see it.

  22. #22 DuWayne
    June 23, 2010

    The reason you don’t kill a person if you’re the state is that ou are busy telling people to not kill each other because it is wrong.

    I am all about you having a right to believe what you will, but I personally think that is a crock. There are very reasonable arguments as to why execution would be useful to the state – I mean besides the flawed notion that it is at all effective as a deterrent, which it is not. For one, it would save the state the costs associated with keeping a person in prison for life. For another, it might well be more humane than locking someone in a cage for the rest of their life – a period that could well be quite a long time if the offender is particularly young.

    The reason that the state should not execute it’s citizens (or any others) is because of the risk of executing someone who is innocent, first and foremost. Even if there is pretty fucking strong evidence, it means making a decision as to what exactly counts as evidence that is strong enough. Then there is this presumption that killing murderers helps bring closure to the families of the victims, something that seems to be not so much the case. Or more to the point, it brings some closure, but not nearly as healthy a closure as just knowing the bastard will never get out of prison.

    Interesting that you don’t think one human killing another is not inherently wrong. Why is that?

    Because it bloody well isn’t. I can think of a great many scenarios in which I would be willing to take a human life and not believe that it was a bad thing to do. Never having taken a human life (thankfully), I cannot speak for how it would make me feel after – though I am pretty certain that regardless of the reason, I would feel like shit about it. But that is not the same thing as thinking it was a bad thing.

    Perfect example. The motherfuckers who decided to shoot out of a moving vehicle, right in front of me, while turning a corner – with no regard for who all besides their intended targets might get hurt. Indeed the only person hurt, was a women walking to pick up her daughter from childcare. If I had the means and the response, I would not consider it a bad thing at all, to shoot the fucking morons dead. I am hopeful that after I would feel bad about ending a human life, but to be perfectly honest, I am not as sure about that as I would like to be.

  23. #23 Dan J
    June 23, 2010

    If you smack people on the back of the head, you’ll get smacked on the back of the head. If you kill people, you’ll get killed.

    I’m picturing a never-ending line of executioners, each one removing the head of the one in front of him because he killed the one in front of him.

  24. #24 DuWayne
    June 23, 2010

    Let me ask you this Al. Is it moral to spend upwards of sixty thousand dollars a year to provide guarded room and board, healthcare and all other needs for each person who commits what could be considered a capital crime – for the rest of their lives, when we have a lack of healthcare, mental healthcare and many other needs, for citizens who do not commit those kind of crimes?

    Is it moral to keep someone locked in a cage for the rest of their life? What if they are being sexually or physically abused? (for clarity, I would personally rather be dead – whether there were abuse or not)

    Note that I am not arguing for the death penalty, as I am dead solid against it. I just don’t think it is nearly as cut and dry as all that. It is quite simple to mark this out in black and white, but as with anything else, it isn’t that simple.

  25. #25 Stephanie Z
    June 23, 2010

    DuWayne, it’s more expensive to execute someone, with the completely inadequate safeguards we have in place, than it simply is to lock them away for life.

  26. #26 Ulf Lorenz
    June 23, 2010

    @11

    “Hitler was supposedly in declining health when he committed suicide, but give him another 10 years in jail if he would have been captured. That comes out to about 6 sec of jail time per holocaust victim, 2 sec if you add all the other victims of WW II.”

    I have to admit that I am against death penalty because I simply do not get the point, and your posting demonstrates exactly the … twisted bogus thinking I do not get. I just picked your post because it is so archetypical, so no pun intended.

    If I exaggerate your argument, why is the death penalty enough? Shouldn’t he be tortured before being killed, so he can literally feel every dead Jew like a nail being driven through his flesh, and has some more time to think about his errors? Shouldn’t he be cut off his genitalia first like some of the more old-fashioned executions included AFAIR? If not, then what exactly is the point of executing him in first place (instead of sending him to jail)?

    Anyone rising from the grave? Nope.

    Anyone feeling better? Maybe.

    Anything different 20 years later? Probably not.

    Now let us turn your argument around. If Hitler had killed “just”, say, 1 million Jews, that would make already something like half a minute per victim. Anyone feeling better? If not, let us go down in numbers a bit and say he went on a personal amok trip and butchered 10 Jews, then survived 50 years in jail. That is already an astonishing 5 years per victim. Does this make the equation any better, or should he still go to the gallows?

    And is it possible that the whole “he only gets xxx [timeunit] per victim, that is not enough, let’s kill him” argument is simply … weak? Why not just punish him (and jail is enough for this) and get over it?

  27. #27 DuWayne
    June 23, 2010

    Stephanie –

    I am not making an argument for it and am assuming that the status quo doesn’t apply. I am also not all that certain that those safeguards you are talking about actually apply across the board – it sure seems pretty quick and easy to execute folks in Texas and Florida. But in any case, I am not arguing for the status quo and am actually against the death penalty. I was making a hypothetical argument in support of it.

    I am pretty sure that China, for example, doesn’t “waste” nearly the resources we do. I am more certain that Iran doesn’t.

  28. #28 Dan J
    June 23, 2010

    The Death Penalty Information Center has some data regarding the cost of incarceration for life versus the cost of capital punishment at their Costs of the Death Penalty page.

    A recent study published by a Duke University economist revealed North Carolina could save $11 million annually if it dropped the death penalty.”
    —P. Cook, “Potential Savings from Abolition of the Death Penalty in North Carolina,” American Law and Economics Review, advance access, December 11, 2009

  29. #29 Stephanie Z
    June 23, 2010

    I know, DuWayne, but when there is a cost to getting it right, that cost is part of the moral equation.

  30. #30 Sam N
    June 23, 2010

    I see a justification in killing a citizen as removal of a threat from society. Killing that citizen that committed a capital crime removes them from the possibility of ever harming someone ever again. It doesn’t seem, in of itself, like such an unjustifiable or uncivilized thing to do. There should be no vengeance in it. It is not about punishing the person that committed the crime, or rectifying what they have already done. It is just the dispassionate removal of a threat to others.

    The problem for me, like many others, lies in the practice. It can result in killing innocent lives, which is completely unacceptable. It is also more costly than prisons in our criminal justice system, and our prisons do a fairly good job at removing such threats from society…

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2010

    So far, I’m not seeing any arguments that the death penalty get you anything.

    The fact that one can in fact execute the wrong person, can’t get the EU to extradite murderers to the US, one steps off the moral high ground which is both an ethical/moral issue and a pragmatic political issue, and so on should be enough. And the cost. End it.

    I think a lot of people are missing the point because you have not read the instructions. Go read the description of the execution in Cina. Then come back and tell me yo want to be art of that system.

    And please, don’t tell me that the way we mighty-ass white westerners do it is somehow superior to what is depicted in that description.

  32. #32 Dan J
    June 23, 2010

    If your child is sent home from daycare because he bites another kid, do you bite him? No, I didn’t think so. Now, why is that?

    Yes, that’s the best way. Bring yourself to the level of a misbehaving child.</sarcasm>

    Where is the deterrent? If I get caught biting, then I get bit. That hurts… avoid pain. The answer is to not get caught. How about a little discussion about why it was wrong to bite in the first place?

    Where does it end? When your spouse gets home from work later that day, does he/she then bite you on the thumb for doing such a thing to your child? Does one of his or her parents then do the same to them because of that?

  33. #33 Bill James
    June 23, 2010

    So far, I’m not seeing any arguments that the death penalty get you anything.

    It could be argued that one execution helped restore confidence in China’s infant formula industry.

  34. #34 DuWayne
    June 23, 2010

    Err…Out of curiosity Greg, who was that last response at 31 intended for? Because aside from Mu and Yahzi, I am not seeing anyone arguing in support of execution – and I am not sure that Yahzi is arguing for it at all, while Mu seems to be arguing for it in specific circumstances.

    I am definitely not seeing anyone making the argument that Westerners do execution better.

    And I don’t need to read the description, thank you. I am well aware of how executions have gone in various places – including the U.S. (Ethel Rosenburg comes to mind – though there are many others more recent). I am tired with reading about atrocities that I can do nothing about. It makes me sick to my stomach and sometimes has me puking blood. It has had an extremely detrimental effect on my health and I don’t feel compelled to do so, for the sake of an argument. If I am unaware of the information someone wants me to check out, I just don’t argue.

    I do not see anything morally wrong with the state executing people, in an of itself. I am not going to see anything wrong with that. In spite of that, I am dead set against the death penalty and if I could make it stop today, I would. I am just not apposed to it, for one of the reasons you are. I am almost certain that the only difference between our reasons for being against the death penalty is that one thing.

    I accept that may be an important one to you and I am sorry if that makes me unpalatable. But I feel what I feel about it and that is unlikely to change – just as I significantly doubt you are suddenly going to decide that I am right. It may well be that you even value human life more than I do, though I sincerely doubt it. I just truly and honestly don’t see a problem with the idea of taking the life of people who are guilty of particular crimes. My problem is with the practical issues surrounding such executions – really, the only one it takes (not to say that I am ignoring all the other reasons) is the whole murdering of an innocent convict.

    And to be entirely clear about this, I do have respect for your position on this. This is definitely one of those issues that I have absolute respect for a position that I firmly disagree with. Mind I do not respect the position that finds the possibility of executing the innocent, an acceptable risk. But I understand and accept a moral frame that just cannot accept such violence. Much the same way that I understand and accept a moral frame that is absolutely pacifist.

    It is not who I am or what I believe, but it is definitely closer than that of people who talk easily, in terms of acceptable collateral casualties.

  35. #35 Al West
    June 23, 2010

    DuWayne,

    Yes, it is moral to keep a man locked up for the rest of his life despite others not having basic necessities, despite him having committed what would otherwise be a capital crime. If other people in the community don’t have basic necessities, then we should deal with that, but not by killing prisoners for convenience or to show that we care about people who don’t have everything. As for the idea that prisons are bad enough and that you’d prefer death, I’m not sure you’d prefer the idea of your fellow citizens sitting down and calmly deciding that you should die, and then set a specific date.

    In fact, the most uncivilised thing I can think of (well, maybe not, but pretty close) is killing people because it might cost you less money if they died.

    I’d say that it is as cut and dried as that. Is it right for the government to have the authority to kill its citizens when they present no imminent danger to others? No. Should we kill people if we have other options, even if they cost slightly more money (and especially if, as in real life, they don’t)? No.

    This is another one of those “debates” where America leaves me baffled. The death penalty is flat out wrong and it does nothing for anybody. There are plenty of nations that have abolished it and seen no harm result. Since it involves killing other humans, you’d think that would be the end of the discussion. But for some reason, in order to show to some people that it’s wrong, you’ve got to show that innocent people are being executed as well as guilty people.

  36. #36 DuWayne
    June 23, 2010

    Al –

    The bottom line, is that I don’t think that some humans are worth spending what we have to, to keep them locked up. There are very few exceptions to my rule that if someone has committed a crime dire enough that they must spend the rest of their life in prison, then they have earned an end to their life. And from my perspective, that is not just because they are a burden. I think that life in a fucking cage is at least as immoral as execution. If they cannot be allowed to be a part of society any longer, then the humane thing to do would be to execute them.

    The problem is that it just isn’t that simple.

  37. #37 Kirth Gersen
    June 23, 2010

    “As for the idea that prisons are bad enough and that you’d prefer death, I’m not sure you’d prefer the idea of your fellow citizens sitting down and calmly deciding that you should die, and then set a specific date.”

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d much, much rather be executed than spend any time at all in a max security prison — the likelihood of being brutalized, raped, and/or killed by the other prisoners, followed by the inability to ever again hold a career even after release (damn background checks!) is equivalent to torture, followed by what amounts to a death sentence anyway. I’d infinitely rather have some people set a date and just do the job, rather than needlessly prolong the agony. Then again, I’m in favor of physician-assisted suicide, for much the same reasons.

    Quality of life is more important, to me, than sheer quantity, so the argument of prolonged life hold no appeal for me. Likewise, I have a hard time accepting the argument that “execution is barbaric,” when the alternative is even more barbaric.

    As for how awful China is, the U.S. has by far the largest prison population per capita of any country in the world — China included (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html). China needs to get their human rights act together, true, but that doesn’t let us off the hook. The fact that the “land of the free” is in fact the least free nation on earth (in terms of incarceration) is hardly something allowing us to point fingers.

  38. #38 Al West
    June 23, 2010

    We’re not talking about animals here. We’re talking about humans. You can actually ask a human what the humane thing to do to them would be. And I think that while there must be prisoners who wish for death (since there are, of course, suicides/attempted suicides in prison), if you did a general survey of the prison population asking whether they’d like to die I expect the majority of answers would come back in the negative, don’t you? Deciding for them is certainly not humane.

    What kind of crimes are dire enough? And on what do you base that? Visceral emotional reaction – paedophilia combined with murder; true psychopathy and serial killing, etc? Or the possibility that the criminal might kill hundreds of people – terrorism, for instance – and therefore killing them might prevent such an act from ever taking place? Or both the emotional and “rational” responses?

    Serial killers are in prison in the UK, France, Germany, Canada &c, just as Charles Manson is in the USA. In prison, they present no threat to society, and that should be the main aim, surely? Presenting no more threat to people and costing less than the appeals and imprisonment for an average death row prisoner… seems like a no-brainer. Has any harm resulted from Manson being imprisoned that could have been evaded by killing him? No.

    I think we should also come back to the idea that this is the government and, in a democratic society, therefore also the electorate, killing somebody. (Some people have noted the paradox; if a person is executed for murder in a democratic society then the electorate is responsible for a killing, and could thus also be considered apt for execution. But then, that’s something of a sophist’s argument.)

  39. #39 Al West
    June 23, 2010

    By the way, I have no problem with physician-assisted suicide or suicide generally, unless it’s simply due to mental illness. If you were in an American maximum security prison for a life sentence without parole and wanted to kill yourself, I say go for it. I don’t you’d be aided in your quest by the government, but that’s beside the point.

    I think you can probably work out that perhaps suicide is slightly different from execution, however. And if you can’t, then perhaps this discussion is not worth having.

  40. #40 Kirth Gersen
    June 23, 2010

    I also feel that Sam N’s point was glossed over rather too quickly. If we judge “civilization” based on the protection of innocents and general preservation of life, capital punishment could be quite civilized, if the rates of false conviction could be brought down a bit.

    Say you have 100 convicted murderers, 10 of whom are falsely convicted (although the rate has never been shown to be anywhere near that high). Say of the 90 actual murders, each would commit an average of 1.5 more murders if paroled (many of them no more, but others repeat offenses until caught again). If you execute them all, you kill 10 innocent people and 90 murders (100 people total). If not, you kill 135 innocent people and 0 murderers (135 people total).

    I don’t know what the recivitism rate actually is, vs. the false conviction rate. But it would seem fairly simple to work out the math and see how it ends up.

    Overall, I think it’s a lousy option. It would be better if prisons could actually rehabilitate criminals. But there is no evidence that they do, and volumes of evidence to the contrary, and no one knows how to even start fixing that. Of the options available to us, capital punishment, although barbaric by utopian standards, might not necessairly be worth dismissing out of hand.

  41. #41 Kirth Gersen
    June 23, 2010

    Admittedly, the kind of analysis I presented breaks down if life without parole is enforceable. Add in the fact that a sentence is normally mitigated to make parole possible, and the escape rates, and again we can run the math — it would lower the net benefit of execution dramatically. Enough to make it a clear winner? I don’t know yet.

  42. #42 DuWayne
    June 23, 2010

    Al –

    Deciding for them is certainly not humane.

    Bullshit. There are a lot of people out there who would like to die, who do not because of as innate sense of self-preservation. Suicide isn’t easy, neither is agreeing to be killed. Do some research into suicide and death with dignity, then get back to me with this one.

    What kind of crimes are dire enough?

    Crimes that make the criminal such a threat, that they cannot ever be allowed in society again.

    And on what do you base that?

    On what sort of danger they present to society.

    Visceral emotional reaction…

    Go reread my comments here. Do I really strike you as the sort of guy to make that sort of judgment, based on emotion?

    Presenting no more threat to people and costing less than the appeals and imprisonment for an average death row prisoner… seems like a no-brainer.

    And if, instead of arguing with the DuWayne in your head, you were actually arguing with what I have written, you would note that I have many reasons for being against the death penalty. There is just one reason for being against it that I do not agree with.

    Were it magically possible for us to know absolutely someone was guilty and to execute them painlessly, without all the resources being expended, I would be all for humanely removing them from society. Seems like a no-brainer.

    I think we should also come back to the idea that this is the government and, in a democratic society, therefore also the electorate, killing somebody.

    Ok, lets do that.

    Assuming my magical scenario were true, I would have no problem putting it to a vote and accepting the results. Unfortunately it is not true, yet we still put it to a vote and the results are unacceptable.

    But then, that’s something of a sophist’s argument.

    Not something of, entirely so and a ridiculous one. That argument assumes that we are all defining murder as the same thing – that all killing is the same. I sincerely doubt that you and me would agree on what defines murder. I could be mistaken here, but I am almost certain that you have a far more black and white view of what constitutes murder, than I do.

    To whit, no matter how repugnant I think it is, I do not believe that an executioner is committing murder. I think it is entirely reasonable to say that is some circumstances, the prosecutor – the judge – the cops, all have the potential to turn an execution into a murder. But in those cases, whatever of them is guilty of malfeasance is the murderer, not the guy payed to pull the switch.

    Death is just as complicated as life. There is no black and white.

  43. #43 Kirth Gersen
    June 23, 2010

    Admittedly, the kind of analysis I presented breaks down if life without parole is enforceable. Add in the fact that a sentence is normally mitigated to make parole possible, and the escape rates, and again we can run the math — it would lower the net benefit of execution dramatically. Enough to make it a clear loser? I don’t know yet.

    “I think you can probably work out that perhaps suicide is slightly different from execution, however.”

    @Al, I advanced a consideration that execution is not necessarily automatically “more barbaric” than a prison sentence, depending on the criteria one uses. You then advanced an option of choice, with which I agree. Wasn’t that easy? But then you turn around and start tossing out ad hominem attacks, which don’t strengthen your case in any way, and which have no clear reason other than I didn’t agree with you a priori, as it were. Why is that?

  44. #44 DuWayne
    June 23, 2010

    I would also like to note that I am all about preventing rape and other violence that is allowed in prison. Doesn’t change my view a bit. But there are a lot of things that absolutely disgust me and anger me about prisons and municipal jails.

    Kirth –

    If you execute them all, you kill 10 innocent people and 90 murders (100 people total). If not, you kill 135 innocent people and 0 murderers (135 people total).

    Lets assume that your math is entirely accurate – I still can’t accept that. It is one thing to execute someone who is guilty, it is quite another to be willing to execute the innocent. That is something I cannot tolerate and is why I can’t tolerate the death penalty.

  45. #45 Al West
    June 23, 2010

    You appear to take my black-and-white stance on the death penalty as evidence of a generalised black-and-white worldview. Not so. But in this instance, I simply do not believe anyone has the right to end somebody else’s life, only the occasional necessity to do so.

    Your judgment vis-a-vis what would constitute such a crime as would necessitate the death penalty is vague. Would Charles Manson be such a criminal? He certainly committed the crimes he is in prison for. There is no doubt that he started a cult and was responsible for a number of killings for no real reason. He’s a dangerously psychopathic human. Should he have been killed or not?

    There are a lot of people out there who would like to die, who do not because of as innate sense of self-preservation.

    So, there are people who want to die, but because they don’t want to die, they don’t say that they want to die? You’ve lost me a little here. How do you differentiate between them anyway? “He says he doesn’t want to die, but he’s going into a maximum security prison. I’d rather die than be in there, and therefore so would he. The humane thing to do would be to strap him to a table and poison him to death.”

  46. #46 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2010

    DuWayne, you of all people should read the description. It is a rich, detailed description of great anthropological interest! I would love your response to it.

  47. #47 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2010

    if the rates of false conviction could be brought down a bit.

    A bit? You mean to zero, right?

  48. #48 Plato
    June 23, 2010

    The story indicated no substance to the facts of what’s really going on within China. To say the true I felt very disturbing from the reading. When you have an article about Crime and Punishment of the China laws, you should at best pointing out in real life facts and not to make the story more interesting to read for the viewers by adding some make-up theatrical scenes to it.

    Any links to back up your story?

    Basically the story was no different than yelling at all the Chinese and at the government of China,

    “I hate you all commie Chinese.”

    The authors and the reporters should found quilty of a Hat Crime if you ask me.

  49. #49 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2010

    Plato, which story would you like documentation for, the one of Davidson Black working in China, or the one of the execution?

  50. #50 DuWayne
    June 23, 2010

    Your judgment vis-a-vis what would constitute such a crime as would necessitate the death penalty is vague.

    Not particularly. I am not being more explicit, because there is some room discussion there. I think the criteria of life imprisonment is a rather reasonable metric, under the circumstances.

    Should he have been killed or not?

    What part of “I am against the death penalty” don’t you understand? Was the crime he was convicted of a capital crime in my opinion? Yes. Should he have been executed? No.

    So, there are people who want to die, but because they don’t want to die, they don’t say that they want to die? You’ve lost me a little here.

    Don’t blame me for your inability to grasp nuance. I suggested that you look into it. If you are interested, do so – if not, I really don’t care. I am not going to spend the time it would take, trying to educate you in the psychology of suicide. I have read several books, even more papers and discussed it with instructors. I am not going to try to impart all that in blog comments.

    Would execution mean killing criminals who truly wanted to live? Absolutely. It would also kill many who would not. In either case, it is more humane than life in a cage.

    Plato –

    No one is screaming at the Chinese people, though the government is certainly a target. I personally find the government of China reprehensible. I do not however, hate the Chinese, by any stretch of the imagination.

    If you would like to get after people who actually feel that way, there is a target rich environment – an all too target rich environment.

  51. #51 Kirth Gersen
    June 23, 2010

    @DuWayne,

    “That is something I cannot tolerate and is why I can’t tolerate the death penalty.”

    I can understand that, and accept it even if I don’t 100% agree in this instance. Any sort of comparative analysis of course fails in the face of a bottom line like, “No matter what the cost, there are some things so repugnant that we just won’t do them. Ever.” And I can definitely see why, from any number of standpoints, one might take such a stance. Indeed, I believe a number of people used just such an argument with Sam Harris, vis-a-vis his controversial stance on torture.

  52. #52 Al West
    June 24, 2010

    In either case, it is more humane than life in a cage.

    Talking of the inability to comprehend nuance, the idea that the word “humane” would encompass killing people who really don’t want to die is stretching it a little. I don’t doubt you know a lot about the psychology of suicide. What I am saying is that, unless you have some kind of magic mind-reading device, the best way to find out what would be most humane for a person is to ask them. If they really want to die, then I say, give them the option of suicide. Allow them to choose whether to take their own life or not. But don’t take it for them on the assumption that they want to but are inhibited by the desire to live.

    With the Charlie Manson example I was employing an example to assess your criteria. I understand that you are against the death penalty; you simply said that in some cases, executions would be acceptable, and you provided the idea that some crimes are so awful as to warrant execution, assuming we could know for certain that the person did the crime. Since we know for sure – as sure as we can be – that Manson really was a conspirator and murderer, and since his crimes were rather dire, by the system you proposed earlier on it would be reasonable to assume that he would be one of the cases to warrant the capital punishment. N’est pas?

    If Manson’s crimes were not that dire, then whose would be? Which crimes would be the ones you believe – theoretically if not in reality – would warrant death?

  53. #53 Paul
    June 24, 2010

    Didn’t have time to read all comments cause I’m on a quick lunch break. I just can’t get past the hypocrisy of the death penalty. Killing is wrong, totally wrong, the most incredibly wrong thing you can do. So we’re going to kill you. Doesn’t make sense to me.

    And as others have raised, killing is irrevocable and all justice systems we currently have are imperfect. Until we find an infallible system or a way to raise the dead then state-sponsored killing isn’t an option.

  54. #54 Dunc
    June 24, 2010

    The death penalty is simply a modern form of human sacrifice.

  55. #55 daedalus2u
    June 24, 2010

    Dunc, exactly right. Human sacrifice to consolidate and strengthen the power of those who control the process by which people are killed.

    That is exactly what the over zealous prosecutor is doing, “gaming” the system to kill someone so as to increase his/her power.

    That is exactly what Rick Perry did.

    Innocent, guilty it doesn’t matter, killing someone by execution shows how tough you are. Just like threatening to use Second Amendment remedies to get political power.

  56. #56 Greg Laden
    June 24, 2010

    The death penalty is not a modern form of human sacrifice.

    The average “tribal” culture with human sacrifice is rare, and probably exists as an entity for a few centuries in time. Human sacrifice is not a widespread activity.

    The death penalty in one form is a Western tradition that is ancient, going back easily thousands of years. The Chinsese version may or may not share roots, but if it does, it goes back thousands of years as well. If they share a common origin, then the death penalty must be 10 thousand years old or so. (roughly) There are no human sacrifice tradition with that age that I know of.

    Capital execution of selected prisoners … what we are calling the death penalty … may well predate any human sacrifice tradition we know of, for all we know. It is not a modern anything.

    The statement “the death penalty is a modern form of human sacrifice” objectifies and primitivises unspecified cultures and ironically privileges “western” belief systems.

    Plato, I guess you are not going to get back to me. You have read my post in a way that brings an interpretation you came to the table with and desired to see.

    Read the title. What does “at their own game” mean?

    Read the description of the execution. It is written by a Chinese observer in china.

    Note as has been noted that for both “western” (mainly US) and China, we are talking about the government and not the people.

    That would be the government that bans this blog. I assume.

  57. #57 daedalus2u
    June 24, 2010

    Greg, I accept that characterizing modern executions as modern human sacrifice does trivialize non-western practices.

    However, I don’t accept that executions for criminal behavior are different in any meaningful way than what is called “human sacrifice”.

    I would appreciate if you could tell me what definitions you are using for what constitutes “human sacrifice”. When servents were killed and interred with their masters, was that “human sacrifice”?

    Is what Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot did “human sacrifice”? Or because a state had “laws” saying it was legal to kill people, then it was legal?

  58. #58 Greg Laden
    June 24, 2010

    However, I don’t accept that executions for criminal behavior are different in any meaningful way than what is called “human sacrifice”.

    I absolutely agree with that. I guess I would repharse “Executions are a modern form of human sacrifice” to “Executions are just another form of human sacrifice”

  59. #59 Mike Haubrich
    June 24, 2010

    I forget to mention above that I have also shaken hands with Chris Ochoa. Corey Tennison, a friend of mine, was a member of The Innocence Project team that secured an innocent man’s exoneration before it was too late.

  60. #60 daedalus2u
    June 24, 2010

    Oh, ok, it seemed like you were trying to differentiate between human sacrifice and excecution as somehow being different because you said that capital punishment has been around for essentially forever but human sacrifice was rare.

  61. #61 Kirth Gersen
    June 24, 2010

    “Killing is wrong, totally wrong, the most incredibly wrong thing you can do.”

    I suppose that’s where we differ. My yardstick for what’s “right” is to reduce the net amount of aggregate suffering; from the statement quoted, yours seems to be to maintain the total number of human lives. (Unless I’m misunderstanding? If so, apologies, and please correct me.)

    If we apply the standard in each case to other example, we may get different results on all kinds of issues. For example, is birth control permissible? My critereon not only says “yes,” but that in some cases it’s highly recommended. Does yours say “no”? If not, why not?

    I am interested in differing standards of what constitutes “moral” and where they lead, especially when they’re phrased so emphatically.

  62. #62 Mu
    June 24, 2010

    Ulf, the reason why I consider a death penalty “enough” and don’t demand torture is probably part of the “civilization” concept Greg is referring to. Society can make one ultimate call, determining that a person has lost the right to life. To my understanding, there is little “extra deterrent” to be gained from making the execution as gruesome and public as possible, and torture without execution as form of punishment was never really a western thing (probably because the condemned was expected to suffer eternal torture in the afterlife anyway).
    My non-support for everyday death penalty is not based on moral considerations but on the fact that I can’t see how you can apply it fairly, evenly and safely, with the emphasis on safely. Even if we can get it right 99.99% of the time, with 16,000 murders each year we would still put one innocent to death each year. Not that having the innocent rotting in jail for life does make much of a difference, but at least you haven’t missed the chance to get it right forever.

  63. #63 prelevent
    June 24, 2010

    China is a civilization that exists among modern nation states. In many ways the same tradition of autocratic rule has been transferred from its fairly recent imperial past to its current rule by the CCP (though the current rule is far less autocratic than the first and second generations of communist rule… Hu Jintao does not have the control that Mao did, nor even Deng).

    Public executions have a long history that stretches back pretty far (though the definition of what is public has some wiggle room). There are surges in the numbers at certain points (especially during politically unstable times), though the methods were fairly similar since the fall of the Qing and the reformations of the last decade. The bullet fee is a distinctly maoist era ritual, which was employed as a psychological reinforcement to keep people (the close relatives) from actively voicing their opinions. The story from Wu Hongda mentions this from the 1983 executions, and so it may have still been done at that time.

    The story from Davidson Black’s experiences was from the civil war era, and so executions were very common in that time, as it was easy to frame almost anything as being part of some kind of a political act. And depending on who was controlling the area at the time, you might be executed for not giving respect to the KMT one week or the CCP the next week.

    It is often couched that criticism of something that happens via official government policy is not a criticism of “the people” rather that it is a criticism of “the government”. I think this is valid to a certain extent, but it begs the question of what portion of the population supports the policy. The writings of individuals (such as Wu Hongda, and many other chinese expats and a few current citizens) may give evidence that the support would not be universal, but it is certainly not uncommon for your every day average person in China to be very ok with executions. This is likely a highly variable matter and people from one province will likely have very different feelings from another province. However, if you call the Chinese predilection for executions barbaric, then it is not simply a denunciation of the current rulers, it is indeed an indictment of the culture itself.

    On another note, I was able to access science blogs from several cities in China in May, so at the moment it does not seem to be blocked.

  64. #64 Ulf Lorenz
    June 24, 2010

    @62

    Although I am not really answering to your post, let me clarify my thoughts from the last post, and add a couple of additional points. And no offense intended again despite some rough words.

    First, I find the argument that almost everyone here uses, “I am against death penalty as long as it affects innocents” plain weak. For your information: if there was no death penalty, these innocents would rot away in prison (actually more of them; as I understand the legal system, death row inmates have more useful publicity and possibilities to appeal (?) ). Especially for those posters that consider being locked up in prison worse than killing the prisoner outright, anything but a clear “yes” to death penalty seems a strange position.

    Now, my main point is that death penalty has simply no virtues to it. Since I dislike chopping other people’s heads off, I therefore tend to favor ordinary imprisonment

    The idea that several people put forward was that “some crimes a so bad, the criminal should die”? Why exactly? The two arguments I immediately find against it are that

    (a) why stop at killing someone, you can have much more pleasure torturing him? (and you did not really answer this except with considering this as “unwestern”)

    (b) why kill him at all? Someone mentioned reciprocity. This runs into an obvious problem as soon as someone kills _two_ (or more) people.

    Why not just consider that some crimes are so bad that _no_ punishment can cancel them? Then instead of striving for “capital” punishment a major one could certainly be enough?

    The other point is that sending someone to jail is actually a pretty harsh punishment, especially if he stays there for the next 20, 30, … years. The advantage is that you can give a pretty good reason for sending someone to prison: the chance of becoming better (would be nice, at least), a second chance (for the not-totally -evil guys), having punishment (you need _some_ punishment anyway, otherwise people are not happy; this includes me), and protecting the outside world (prison and killing is not really that different here).

    Again, some commentators (not you AFAIR) have a strange stance in that they acknowledge this and suggest to kill the prisoners as the more “humane” treatment, this is pretty hilarious, come to think of it. Anyway, then I do not really understand: if prison is worse than killing someone, why is killing someone the ultimate punishment that should be reserved for the really bad guys?

  65. #65 Ulf Lorenz
    June 24, 2010

    One incorrectly placed argument in my previous post:

    You can argue for prison in general because it provides punishment and neutralizes bad people.

    The advantage of prison over death penalty is that you can evaluate someone later (if he became a better person). Also if someone has become harmless (e.g., by turning 70) and everyone important agrees, you can release him. I simply lack the zeal of condemning someone for eternity, but this might not be the case for every commentators here.

  66. #66 Kirth Gersen
    June 24, 2010

    “Anyway, then I do not really understand: if prison is worse than killing someone, why is killing someone the ultimate punishment that should be reserved for the really bad guys?”

    The question implies a satisfaction with the current prison system, which is far from accurate in my case at least. An optimum solution would involve reconfiguring prisons from hellholes to actual rehabilitation facilities — and then allowing the successfully rehabilitated prisoners to rejoin society (without a permanent stigma that prevents them from finding any employment other than further criminal enterprise). Alas, we currently seem to have no idea at all how to go about actually rehabilitating anyone, so the optimum solution remains philosophical, rather than possible, at this time.

    Then again, I’m not one of the “punishment fits the crime” people; rather, I try to be a pragmatist. My motives for executing Hitler would be the same as for executing anyone else: strictly to eliminate any possibly further threat from that person, in as absolute and as humane a manner as is currently practicible.

  67. #67 Greg Laden
    June 24, 2010

    For your information: if there was no death penalty, these innocents would rot away in prison (actually more of them; as I understand the legal system, death row inmates have more useful publicity and possibilities to appeal

    That’s not really the point. I think it is generally thought of this way: The ultimate punishment for which there is no appeal demands absolute certainty of guilt. We can demonstrate that over the course of time a non trivial number of individuals are killed by the state who were innocent. That point is not invalidated by the fact, which is also true, that there are innocent people in prison.

    At a larger level, we come back to the point made above regarding human sacrifice: Most people in the US, for instance, will get very involved in a wide range of issues, and won’t stand for certain things happening, and will get very well organized and well funded over certain issues (like the right to bear arms, for instance) but don’t give a flying fuck about the fact that there are people doing time who should not be, and now and then executed when they should not be.

    That is because there is a presumption that there is a certain kind of person who is criminal-like even if they are not really criminals. (And here we more than touch on issues of race and class.) Human sacrifice is not about the individual who is sacrificed, usually, but about larger social and cultural categories.

  68. #68 DuWayne
    June 24, 2010

    Al –

    Look, if you are going to try to argue with me, then fucking read what I wrote. I am against the death penalty, even in cases where we have a pretty damned good idea that the fucker was guilty, because such cases are exceedingly rare. Accepting it as valid in those cases, requires that we set some criteria for reasonable certainty of guilt – something that I do not believe would be safe.

    As far as the rationale behind death being more humane than life in prison, I cannot explain this adequately in blog comments. It is complicated. It is more complicated than even a few pages could explain. I could write a long paper, or even a book trying to explain it and it would still not change your mind about the morality of executing certain types of criminals.

    Given that I am dead nuts against the death penalty, for about every reason except the underlying morality of it, I am not going to spend that amount of time and effort making an argument for it.

    Ulf –

    Again, some commentators (not you AFAIR) have a strange stance in that they acknowledge this and suggest to kill the prisoners as the more “humane” treatment, this is pretty hilarious, come to think of it. Anyway, then I do not really understand: if prison is worse than killing someone, why is killing someone the ultimate punishment that should be reserved for the really bad guys?

    I acknowledge that life in prison, is less humane than death. Going to prison, knowing you are going to get out at some point, can be more humane than death. It is the understanding that one will never leave the cage that is inhumane. To make sure I have been clear, I feel this way, even assuming that prisons actually move away from the intolerable barbarism that is the dominant paradigm in the U.S.

    And because your comment implies some confusion on this point (apologies if it was unintended), I would just like to clarify for the bajillionth time, that I am dead against the death penalty. The morality of executing criminals for certain crimes just isn’t one of the reasons I oppose it.

    The advantage of prison over death penalty is that you can evaluate someone later (if he became a better person). Also if someone has become harmless (e.g., by turning 70) and everyone important agrees, you can release him.

    People who are sentenced to life without possibility of parole, are sentences that because there is no way they can be trusted in society again. Someone who has, for example, chosen to kill thirty people at random, is an unacceptable risk to society. It doesn’t matter how much this person might appear to have become a “better person.” Given the nature of the crimes that put him (or her) in prison, that is a risk that simply cannot be taken. It is entirely possible for a sociopath to pretend they are – this is why it is generally a shock when such people are caught. They often spend their entire life pretending.*

    As for age rendering them harmless…Sorry, but I don’t accept that. For one thing, my dad is 76 and would be perfectly capable of (physically) of murder. Unless someone is on the verge of death, they are still a risk. The process of trying to determine whether or not they are an acceptable risk or not, is quite frankly more expense than I am willing to provide. Don’t get me wrong – I believe in humane palliative care for even the very worse criminals. But I do not accept that this means that any expense should be taken to release them, so they can die outside that cage.

    Re; the whole human sacrifice discussion…

    I really don’t see it. Unless you are going to define any and all taking of human life as human sacrifice, this makes no sense.

    * I do want to be clear that the vast majority of sociopaths never commit crimes, never hurt other creatures for their pleasure. Studies have indicated that there are far more sociopaths out there than was ever assumed and that the vast majority of sociopaths are only different than anyone else, in that they do not experience guilt.

  69. #69 Bill James
    June 24, 2010

    At a larger level, we come back to the point made above regarding human sacrifice: Most people in the US, for instance, will get very involved in a wide range of issues, and won’t stand for certain things happening, and will get very well organized and well funded over certain issues (like the right to bear arms, for instance) but don’t give a flying fuck about the fact that there are people doing time who should not be, and now and then executed when they should not be.

    I for one am looking forward to future posts on our American justice system.

  70. #70 Ulf Lorenz
    June 28, 2010

    I do not know if anyone is reading this, but to clear up some thoughts:

    @66

    If I think about this a bit more, one of the reasons I associate the Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot from the start with mere bloody revenge instead of pragmatism might be that you simply do not need to execute them. Their organized mass killings need more than a racist/cynical/plain insane leader, they require a whole organization, and as soon as this breaks down (prerequisite for a trial), there is little reason to believe that they will continue killing. For a more actual example, I cannot imagine a scenario where Radovan Karadzic would keep on murdering, which does not involve the breakdown of the current world order.

    @67

    The argument seemed so good it had to have a catch. I admit that it requires too much cynical thinking.

    @68

    I understand that you are against the death penalty. And though it may have seemed otherwise, I do not try to assign you a different position, I merely challenge some of your arguments.

    Regarding age rendering people harmless: This argument originates from me replacing “dangerous murder” by “murder” without telling you. So I withdraw it, it is not valid, and you are right.

    Regarding capital punishment vs. life long sentence, I side with Al, though. We probably agree that there can exist some people that have shown themselves such a danger to their environment that a simple “body count” suggests they should be removed forever.

    However, if we still respect their (now limited) rights as human beings, then the definition what the more humane treatment is should be left … almost defined by their wishes. This is not meant to be an emotional argument, and it might need some refinement, but deciding a matter of such importance for other people feels plain wrong.