Monday, August 13, 2012

Swimming against the tide

I've written many times before about the myth of closure when talking about the death penalty. I've said often that killing an inmate doesn't bring anyone back to life. I've pointed out that killing an inmate doesn't take everyone back in time to a point before the crime.

Now Erika Christakis takes aim at the myth of closure. She points out in this recent piece in Time that the cult of closure didn't even appear on the scene until the early 1990's when it became quite apparent that the death penalty was not an effective deterrent against violent crime.

Ms. Christakis also makes the case that debating the proper case to merit the death penalty is an exercise in futility. As far as Ms. Christakis is concerned, the death penalty is a relic of history that deserves a proper burial.

In nearly every way, we live in a more civilized and less violent world, with dramatic declines in homicide, rape, assault, child abuse, animal cruelty and discrimination against the vulnerable. We have also acquired an ever greater understanding of the biological and social determinants of crime. Paradoxically, we tie ourselves in knots with this newfound sophistication, searching for a mythical sharp line where mitigating factors may or may not justify a death sentence. Does a brain injury from child abuse suffice? What about a parentless teenager who was led astray by a sociopath? What about a schizophrenic whose paranoia resulted in refusing to take his medications? Poverty? Retardation? Autism? 
But these mental gymnastics are morally and logically bankrupt, and we cheapen ourselves by deploying them. Our eye-for-an-eye approach to the death penalty is getting progressively harder to support with reason. We know the death penalty doesn’t deter people. We know it is extremely expensive to apply “fairly.” So the only remaining arguments are emotional — the most compelling of which is that the families of murder victims want it.

And she's right.

There is no logical reason to continue strapping inmates to gurneys and pumping them full of poison. The complete randomness of who is chosen to die makes it meaningless as a deterrent. Whenever you have a system in which the man who pulled the trigger is given life in prison while his partner in crime gets the needle, you have a truly messed up system.

And what about those mitigating factors that Ms. Christakis speaks of? Where do you propose we draw the line at mitigating punishment or culpability? And are we going to apply the same standards across the board?

There is a reason the death penalty has been outlawed in most of the developed world. Meanwhile we look for more and more reasons to kill people on this side of the pond. We are swimming against the tide on this one, people.

We claim to be more civilized than the rest of the world. We hold ourselves out to be a model for every other society to pattern itself after. And yet we continue to promote revenge, a purely negative state of mind, as one of our core values. What does that say to the world about us?

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