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The death penalty is lethal

With the Moussaoui verdict, talk of the death penalty is again contributing to global warming. I can’t resist adding my two cents’ worth.

There are two reasons to apply capital punishment: the hope that it will stop others from committing similar crimes, and the desire to get the slimeballs.

The death penalty has been around since humans formed societies. Studies of its effect have been around since the scientific method was invented a few centuries ago. There is no support for the hope that it prevents any crimes. People keep trying, because it seems like it ought to, but it doesn’t. It just plain doesn’t. I think there’s a very simple reason for that. People who commit crimes aren’t planning on being caught. It takes a rather law-abiding citizen to get hung up on “what might happen.”

So, how about revenge? Does it at least work for that?

Well, yes. You have revenge. Then there’s this flat feeling. The pain that caused the hatred hasn’t gone away, and the intelligent person realizes that revenge is not all it’s cracked up to be. The less intelligent starts screaming for more revenge, and better, faster, and cheaper revenge. That’s about as effective as you might expect of something that didn’t work the first few hundred times it was tried. So capital punishment gives revenge, but that doesn’t actually do you any good. On this level, it’s a colossal waste of resources to scratch an itch.

There is, however, another level that I don’t see discussed often enough. The issue is not how well the death penalty is applied, the guilt or innocence of the accused, bias in sentencing, or the gruesomeness of the procedure. All of those are important issues, but arguing about them implies that capital punishment would be useful in a perfect judicial system.

Let’s say that we have a perfect system. In that case, what does it say when a criminal is killed by the authority of the State? It says that the most powerful entity in our world thinks that killing bad people solves something.

Think about that. The highest authority has said that killing is a solution. Admittedly, there are footnotes about which crimes deserve it, due process, and so on. But the essence of a criminal is that they’re a law unto themselves. They’re not reading the footnotes. They’re just absorbing the part of the message they want to hear, which is that it’s morally acceptable to kill your enemies. The biggest guns in the world say so.

The other important point is that people take their tone from those in power. If the CEO steals, the office boy doesn’t take too long to catch on. If the State can kill, then killing is okay.

That is the real problem with the death penalty. By defining killing as morally acceptable, it helps create the climate for the very crimes it is supposed to stop.

Technorati tags: death penalty, capital punishment, Moussaoui, moral authority