Death Penalty

So there’s been a lot of stuff in the news lately about the guy who brutally raped an eight-year-old and how the Supreme Court decided not to give him the death penalty.

This is the sort of discussion that churns the stomach of decent people in many cases, and so I’ll cut tag it because I can perfectly understand not wanting to be involved in it, even in passing.

Now, I am generally–in most cases–fairly opposed to the death penalty, and I’ll tell you why.

I believe that justice, right down at the bottom, is based on punishment and learning. You do something wrong, you get punished, you hopefully learn not to do that bad thing again.

We could argue for centuries about how it doesn’t really work out that way in PRACTICE, and the various problems with our current legal system in this country and people just learning not to get caught and other people getting excessively punished for things that aren’t particularly wrong, and believe me, I’m right there with you, but nevertheless, that’s the basic premise. We punish people and they’re supposed to learn from it.

I’m fine with this. This is a reasonably sound ethical system, so far as I am concerned.

The PROBLEM for me with the death penalty is that we are punishing people and allowing them no opportunity to learn from it. The dead don’t learn. At that point, it becomes unethical. In essence, we’re trading justice for vengeance. (Is vengeance bad? Is it helpful? Does it do more harm than good? I don’t know. Everything gets squishy and relative on questions like that. I do not think, however, that it is a useful basis for an ethical system, and when I see people whooping and hollering and waving signs outside of prisons on execution day, I feel that I am watching some of what is worst about humanity.)

All I know is that punishment with no expectation of learning is an act of cruelty.

Nor do I believe for one minute that the death penalty is any kind of deterrent–I think that most people have only the haziest idea of what punishment occurs for what crime, and I include myself in that number. How long do you go to jail for arson? Shoplifting? Manslaughter? Getting caught with an eighth of weed in a school zone? Couldn’t even begin to tell you.

The deterrent for me, and I suspect for a lot of us, is always Fear of Getting Caught. I’m guessing that this holds true whether you are someone like me, whose great sins these days are things like jaywalking and speeding, or someone like I was in college (possession for personal use, accessory to vandalism*) or someone who is doing Very Bad Things like murder or rape. I have always been very suspicious of the claim that the death penalty is a deterrent, because it doesn’t square with my experience of people and their knowledge of the penal code. Shit, up until an hour or two ago, I thought you probably could get the chair for brutally raping a child. I think death-penalty-as-deterrent requires a much more informed populace than we currently possess.

Ergo, I have a lot of problems with the death penalty.

However, here we run into the Mad Dog Exception. As various parties have said, far more eloquently than I, some people are mad dogs. You can’t punish a mad dog for being mad, and expect it to learn from the experience. As I said above–that’s cruelty, right there. With a mad dog, you usher them out of this life as quickly and cleanly as possible, and that ENDS the matter, and everybody’s happier. (I include the dog in this, and not just literally rabid dogs–I have met dogs with behavioral problems who were miserable, paranoid, aggressive, and downright psychotic, and honestly, I think once a reasonable and decent effort has been made to resolve the issue, it’s better to put the dog down. I realize this is not a popular view in some quarters, but there y’are–in a perfect world we’d be able to help everybody, but it’s an imperfect world, and I do not believe that letting an animal live out their natural lifespan in rage and fear is any great gift.)

So this is why, despite being a fairly ethical person, I’m ultimately NOT completely opposed to the death penalty, because I genuinely believe that some people are too far gone, for whatever reason, to learn not to do bad things. And there is no point in punishing them for this lack, but nevertheless they need to be put down.

Now, it would be really really emotionally satisfying to say that any bastard who rapes an eight-year-old is obviously a mad dog and needs to be shot at once, and trust me, there are large parts of my brain that are yelling just that. REALLY emotionally satisfying. I strongly suspect that most decent human beings feel exactly that way.

But. But, but, but.

The thing is, it’s not the heinousness of the crime. You can tell me all the gory details of anything, and I will cringe and sweat and shudder and agree that yes, this was a very bad thing. But. The basis of the ethical system, much as it occasionally pains me, is not the question of whether I be emotionally satisfied. Watching criminals be fed to lions is probably plenty emotionally satisfying, but it sure ain’t ethical.

The point of justice is not to make me feel better, it’s to make the world better, and I am only a very small part of the world.

The question is whether or not the person in question is a sentient being capable of learning from being punished. And I don’t know. I wouldn’t know without meeting the guy. I am unlikely to ever know. I’ll leave that to his psychiatrists.

I don’t particularly agree with the Supreme Court decision–a lot of the rationale was based on arguments about punishment-as-deterrent that I already mentioned, and the argument that rape of children is not as morally depraved as murder. And my brain says that’s idiocy. Frankly, I think that if you’re the sort of bastard who rapes an eight-year-old, and you can’t learn that that is A Very Bad Thing, you probably need to be taken out back of society and shot. But the key for me isn’t WHAT you did, it’s whether or not you can learn that you shouldn’t do it. Otherwise we’re back to vengeance rather than punishment.

Ironically, this puts me in the weird position of just about believing that the insane and retarded should be executed if so required, because even though it’s not their fault, per se, they are incapable of learning not to do otherwise. I dislike that idea, but it IS the logical conclusion here, and I can’t see much of a way around it, because my ultimate argument is that the death penalty is not a punishment but a humane removal. There are those who are insane and retarded who would probably be happy merely being removed from society, and if so, then absolutely, do that!–but I suppose I don’t believe in making the mad live out their lives in misery any more than the sane. Ugh, what a mess.

The ultimate problem, of course, is how the death penalty is carried out in this country, which is, in a word, badly. And that’s why I find myself opposed to it, despite my belief that it is ultimately necessary in some cases, because we hit the imperfect-world problem again, and we’ve been doin’ a shitty job keeping the innocent off death row these days, to say nothing of the prolonged period of keeping the guilty ON death row, which is nothin’ but a clusterfuck. So even though I believe some people NEED to die (which is NOT the same as “deserve to die”) I in no way trust our current system to make a good decision on who those people are.

I dunno. That’s as far as I get from mulling over the question, and my own thoughts are pretty well conflicted, obviously. Other people may have a clearer and more elegant answer to the situation, and if so, I’d like very much to hear it.

*I had a friend with a potato launcher, and yes, it was wrong, and yes, I probably deserved to be punished for it, even though I wasn’t and it’s a really funny story. Remind me to tell you some time. But still, I had no idea what the punishment for accessory to potato launcher is. Still don’t.

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