So Arkansas has executed four people in the last eight days, after not executing anyone for twelve years. Wow. This is really a disgrace.
Before I tell you why I think this is a disgrace, let me make most of you angry by telling you what my cousin Screwie Generis thinks. Screwie is a lot smarter than I am, and he thinks the death penalty is just fine. Here’s how he responds to some of the standard objections to the death penalty.
1. “It’s cruel and unusual”. Perhaps, but then almost everything about our prison system is cruel and unusual, starting with the absurdly high incarceration rate itself, and going all the way up to using prison as a warehouse for all our deinstitutionalized mentally ill. There is no logical basis for singling out the death penalty for its cruelty or unusualness.
2. “It’s used disproportionately against people of color”. This is not an argument to end the death penalty – it is an argument to use it more often on white offenders. The question isn’t what color the murderer is, but whether he committed a capital offense.
3. “It might make you feel better, but it won’t bring back the victim”. Exactly! Nothing can bring back the victim. Life imprisonment can’t do it. A slap on the wrist can’t do it. No punishment you can invent will bring back the victim. The point of capital punishment is that actions have consequences, and this is the correct price to be paid for ending someone’s life.
4. “It doesn’t deter crime”. Nonsense. It deters the shit out of the guy you’re executing. No more stabbing the corrections officers for you, sonny boy. Anyway, if deterrence was the main objective of capital punishment or any other punishment, we’re doing it all wrong. You’d have to start by performing the punishment where those you’d like to deter can see it – in the public square or on TV, for example.
5. “It’s not justice, it’s revenge.” It’s both. But so what if it was just revenge? Why is that not an adequate justification? And, again, isn’t any other punishment also “revenge”? The more important question is, did the guy commit the crime or not?
6. “It’s costly.” Quite beside the point. Everything we do as a society, both the right things and the wrong, has costs. This argument belongs somewhere else. Are you challenging me to think of a cheaper way to kill someone? Because I can do it if you are.
7. “The state has no right”. Hmmm. What “right” does the state have to do anything at all? There are plenty of people out there who think the state has no right to collect income tax, to designate National Monuments, to seize land by eminent domain, or to do many other things that we now allow it to do. The state has whatever “rights” we grant to it.
8. “What if you execute the wrong guy?” OK, now you’re making sense. You cannot execute someone if there is any chance whatever that he is the wrong person. You just can’t do it. The Innocence Project has done some great work in this area, though I’m a bit puzzled by how Barry Scheck can use DNA to free both the innocent and the guilty (remember O.J.?) It’s a really horrible thought that even one innocent person was ever put to death. But, again, this is less an argument against capital punishment than an argument against convicting innocent people. It would also be horrible (maybe even worse!) for an innocent man to spend his life in prison. But, yes, I get it: if you find out someone is innocent, and you haven’t yet executed him, you can release him. The standard for capital punishment cannot be the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that got him convicted, but must be raised to “without a molecule of doubt”.
9. “The murderer is a changed man – he’s rehabilitated and no longer the same guy who committed the crime”. Again, so what? I’m no longer the same guy I was when I (did something) 20 years ago. But I still did it. It still has repercussions for someone else. Can you just murder someone and say, “Hey, that was last week – I’ve grown!” and be absolved? Should we give Poland a call and tell them to leave this guy alone?
10. “The poor guy has the I.Q. of a dust mite – he doesn’t know right from wrong.” He doesn’t know right from wrong, but you want to let him go free? No thanks.
11. “You must take the perpetrator’s background into account – he had a terrible upbringing and it’s understandable why he did the things he did.” Puh-leeeze! First, tons of people had rough upbringings and did not choose to kill anyone. In making this argument, you are denying free will, and, well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on whether we have free will. But more importantly, think of the implications if we go along with it! You’re saying we have to set the murderer free because his step-father put cigarettes out on his chest when he was nine, and he can’t be held responsible for his actions. Fine. Release him. And when he does it again, you have to release him again because the back-story hasn’t changed. You’ve made the punk into James Bond – he has a license to kill.
Whew. OK. Enough from Screwie. But at this point you’re probably asking why, if I think Screwie’s arguments defending capital punishment merit repeating here, did I start by saying that what Arkansas is doing is a disgrace.
Arkansas is executing these guys because their supply of the lethal drugs that they use for executions is nearing its expiration date, and they think they might have trouble getting more.
Screwie might be able to convince me that there are valid reasons to defend capital punishment, but I can’t be convinced that running low on poison is one of them.