Nothing You Haven't Heard Before, But Still...

12.11.2005
Ore : 1:48 PM

As far as I'm concerned, it's not so much that the anti-death penalty camp won the debate hands down years ago, as that the pro-death penalty camp, after all these years, has yet to win:

* For the process to remain as just and unlikely to enmesh the innocent as possible, it must continue to be far more cumbersome and expensive than that which puts convicts in prison for life. (Beware of anyone who tries to argue for efficiency and streamlining in the justice system; timely justice need not be hasty justice.)
* No human system is infallible. Innocents have been executed, and so long as the death penalty continues to be in effect, will be again; this is inevitable. And on the face of it, I reject the morality that would rather err on the side of killing innocents than of letting go or going easy on any guilty. The burden of proof is on those who share that mentality to convince me that it is superior to mine, which errs on the side of sparing the innocent. I have yet to hear one compelling argument. (Until the deterrent argument holds water, I do not accept the necessity of sacrificing the innocent on the altar of justice as it is defined by the pro-death penalty crowd.)
* We afford the government the authority to kill people (specifically, its own citizens) outside of the arena of war at great risk to ourselves. And inasmuch as the government is an agency and tool of the people, we are, each and every one of us, ultimately responsible for the actions of our government. There is enough blood to coat each and every one of our 300 million pairs of hands more than once. Why seek out more?
* There has yet to be any conclusive proof that the death penalty is a deterrent. And no (per my second point, above), the onus is not mine to prove that it is not a deterrent. (Tangentially, my personal opinion, unqualified though it may be, is that the real deterrent to any sort of crime is how likely the criminal in question thinks it is that he or she will be caught, regardless of possible punishment. This doesn't count of course the mentally ill.)


All the arguments I have heard in favor of the death penalty that aren't a mish-mash of revenge-fantasy rationalizations and studies in obfuscation and elision using statistics, are almost entirely predicated on emotional anecdotes dramatizing the horrors visited upon the victims. None of these arguments successfully counters even one of the points I've made above.

Which of course, opens me up to charges of coldness, of being uncaring. "Of course you ivory-tower liberals would dismiss the victims' plight -- you're heartless eggheads!" We can ignore for a moment the inherent laughability of this claim as it might pertain to yours truly, as any of my regular readerettes can attest.

I submit that to keep my heart at arm's length just long enough, in a particular instance, to use my brain is not heartlessness. Indeed, if any punitive action feels like justice, if you get some visceral satisfaction that indeed fairness and right are prevailing, chances are they're not; rather, you're in the bailiwick of vengeance, something not worthy of us, of humanity. We are better than that -- or at least, we can be if we allow ourselves to be. (And to the Orson Scott Cardian argument that any hesitation in striking that killing blow is an expression of humanistic vanity, I would respond that "'vengeance is mine,' sayeth the Lord." The few among us who presume to be his instrument do so at the peril of us all.)

Should Tookie get gassed? Frankly, from what I know about the case, and in part for the reasons I've listed above, I think not. And cold though it may sound, a superficial cost/benefit analysis, independent of the previously mentioned utilitarian arguments and more specific to the case at hand, suggests to me that he's of more value to society as a living force against gang violence than as just another corpse in the ground.

In any event (with the caveat that I'm saying this based on only a first, second, and third look at the case), Mr. Cory Maye should most certainly not be killed. Mr. Maye has years to go before his number is up, and true justice (as opposed to the mere bloodthirstiness of the mob, abetted by its sociopathic users and enablers) may yet win out. But he's a black man who mistook a white cop (whose warrant was for a neighboring apartment) for an intruder in Missi-frickin'-ssippi. I'm not holding my breath.

As I believe this situation brilliantly illustrates, the best we can do here is to fail to compound the problem of unjust executions by denying the government the power to kill people. It's not enough to fix the many problems in our system of justice, but it creates an additional, much needed safeguard. I'm all about erring on the side of good and fairness, here.

posted by teh l4m3 at 1:48 PM | Permalink |

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Comments for Nothing You Haven't Heard Before, But Still...
What a great post! I get so frustrated talking about the death penalty that I usually fail to maintain clarity. I just wish I could get the pro-death-penalty people to understand the basic, crucial, fundamental difference between believing that some people may in fact deserve to die for what they have done, and believing that we could ever institutionalize that moral instinct in a way that could absolutely guarantee that the State would never, ever seize and legally execute an innocent person. Although I do not share in the first belief, I don't think it's completely insane or anything. But the second belief is totally untenable for anyone but fascist ideologues who believe in the infallibility of the state.

To me, this distinction is the last stop on the death penalty debate train. Nothing could ever get me past it. Even if CP did have a deterrent effect, that wouldn't justify the killing of even one innocent citizen. I mean, it would probably have a deterrent effect if the federal government carpet-bombed neighborhoods with crime rates above a certain level, but...so what? It's still a terrible idea.

The death penalty exposes, like nothing else can, the bullshittery of the Right’s claim to both value human life and value small, limited government.

Dobroye utro, comrades, and a hearty "hear, hear!"

Thursday evening I witnessed one of my esteemed colleagues standing and watching a corporate TV 'news' report about the poor brownish guy who got shot dead by U.S. marshals for supposedly saying he had a bomb and was gonna blow stuff up at the airport. This guy scoffed at the very notion that the marshals may have wrongfully shot and unarmed man (the 'news' report made it clear that the man had no bomb, and that he had a history of bipolar disorder, and that he had probably missed his meds). Anyway, according to my esteemed colleague, the marshals were right to kill the guy, end of story, case closed ("they shoulda shot him," were his exact words, I think). Several hours later, this same esteemed colleague went out of his way to prepare hot coffee and leftovers from some snow-bound, stranded motorists who had just wandered into the firehouse to find a payphone. He hosted one of the motorists for about five hours. Now, you're asking, what is the point of this anecdote?

I was left to ponder how a person could be so instinctively compassionate when faced directly with his fellow humans' immediate plight, but be so willing to write off the life of someone he'd never met. As I said in a rambling post on my own blog last week, teh and res, I think this dynamic is common in our benighted society. It also explains how a nation so (ostensibly) enamored of freedom and liberty for all can cheer on its own government's vaporization and humiliation of strangers across the globe without nary a critical thought.

Many of us have been trained to accept state violence against the "other," be that "other" uppity foreign brown people, or domestic brown/poor people who've been sufficiently publicly condemned by the organs of state (said organs magnified, in turn, by the corporate media).

We are Raymond Shaw, and when the news media call us on the phone, we pick up the special deck of cards they and the guvmint have brainwashed us into playing. I'm glad to see that some of us have rejected Dr. Yen's psychological "dry cleaning." Capital punishment is a fucking farce, and it's the icing on the cake of our farcical criminal 'justice' system.

Res: If any debate must be relegated exclusively to print and verbally avoided at any cost, it is the DP debate. Only in print can you bypass most of the feelings of frustration and anger that inevitably rear their head in person, ultimately jamming up any forward momentum on the issue.

And you are exactly right. One of the things I touched on was that prodeathpenalty.com site, where their most frequent response (often dishonestly made, IMHO) is the "what about the victims, you heartless monster?" refrain. They can't seem to be made to understand that our system doesn't work just for the victims; it works for all of us -- or at least, it's supposed to.

CS: your anecdote reminds me to revisit Kohlberg's levels of morality, wherein America seems to be a level five nation, having been founded by a group of sixes, and currently populated mostly by threes and fours.

Oh, and hope Isabel is doing well!

Thank you, teh; Isabel is doing fine, the wee lass.

I followed the link to the Kohlberg thingie. Quite fascinatin'. A nation of moral children we are indeed.

In all honesty, I'm sort of ambivalent about the death penalty. I'm mostly against it and I can't imagine being the one to flip the switch or give the injections.

So. Mostly against it.

i am solidly anti-martyr penalty.

You hate Christmas don't you? Existential Communist!

mdhatter: There is that mostly utilitarian, albeit ugly, argument to contend with as well, that often such a system provides martyrs to a social or political movement undesirable to the proponents of the death penalty. I can imagine this being countered with (and yes, certain Republican strategists have used this exact phrase with regards to Democratic opponents) Joe Stalin's "No man, no problem!"

BK: I love Christmas! What I hate is the conservative-manufactured War on Christmas. Bill O'Reilly's CIA codename is now officially "Curveball." Hic. Pass the loofah.

You are the loofah!

Bill O'Rielly,
Bill O'Liely.
Still a lie,
Kill a truth.
Bill O'Rielly,
Bill O'Liely.
Full of shit,
Eyes are brown.
Bill O'Rielly,
Bill O'Liely.

Heh u r teh w4lr|_|5!!!

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