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Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Penalty Box

We 20somethings are often criticized, sometimes even on this very blog, for being self-centered, vapid, insipid, ignorant, ill-informed, and generally wankerish.

Most of the time, these criticisms are apt, appropriate, well-aimed and well-deserved.

Sorry. But, you know...

As I've admitted in the past, I sometimes go trolling through the candy-coated wasteland that is the discussion board for inspiration on what to write about. The topics of conversation here, if they can be said to typify topics in which 20somethings, (at least, 20something bloggers) liberally engage are, well, shall we say, more sugary and less meaty.

"No More Pink Websites!"

"Holiday Giveaway Contest!" (Is this really worthy of a "discussion?")

"Anyone Else Hate the Stop & Chat?"

"Anyone Here on Google Wave Yet?"

"Charging For Plastic Bags"

and, easily my personal fucking favorite:

"If You All Had a Lion As Your Pet What Would You All Have Done?"




And so, in this sometimes vacuous wasteland of inanity, I was pleased and relieved to see that, yesterday, someone decided to open up a discussion on the death penalty, in the wake of the execution of D. C. sniper John Allen Muhammad. I'm happy to follow in this person's footsteps and continue the discussion, which I think is a very worthwhile one, on my little blogiedoo, and I hope you'll join in because, of all the social dilemmae that confront us, this one is big.

Before we really get started, I want to be up front with you and let you know that, from high school through college I was a staunch death-penalty supporter. I believed that the death penalty was an appropriate punishment for someone who had the audacity to break the most basic covenant with man by taking a life-- by committing the act of murder. I believed that the enormous, detailed, lengthy appeal process that occurs every time someone is sentenced to death in this country was sufficient for any convicted murderer to exculpate him or herself from the charges if he or she were truly innocent, that, through the appeal process, the truth would out.

I still believe some of this today, but not all of it. Being somewhat older and somewhat wiser, and a teensy bit grayer, both in hair and in worldview, I know now that there exists in some cases police and prosecutorial misconduct, and I know that it is distinctly possible to sentence innocent people to death, and such an irrevocable mistake cannot really be permitted by a society that dare call itself "civilized."

But, do I still believe, in theory and in a perfect world, that it is appropriate for the state to execute a murderer?

I sure do. Strap him down. Light him up. It's Christmastime.

We don't, though, live in a perfect world. Hell, if we did, there would be no murderers at all, would there? We'd all be holding hands and singing "Movin' Right Along" from "The Great Muppet Movie" together while roasting marshmallows over an open fire until the end of time. Wearing fuzzy, pastel-colored feet-pajamas, with butt flaps. But who are we kidding?

If you had to ask me what I truly believe should happen to convicted murderers, and I'm talking 1st degree, no extenuating circumstances, no mitigating bullshit, no remose, no nothing butchers-- what should happen to them in this world? Life. Period. No 25-to-Life. No 30-to-Life. No Life-With-the-Possibility-of-Parole.

No. Life. Period.

The question is not how much it costs to incarcerate some murderous shit for the rest of his or her natural life, versus how much it costs to clutter the judicial system with their often frivolous death-row appeals and how much it costs to keep someone alive on death row, only to carry out an expensive execution in the end. I'm not terribly interested in the cost, because the cost of the original murder is far greater to the victim's family and to the fabric of society as a whole than any prison system or judicial tab after the fact. Murder, folks, is an expensive endeavor-- and the one who inevitably doesn't pay anything towards its recompense is the murderer.

People who argue against the death penalty inevitably bring up the fact that the death penalty isn't a deterrent. This argument is spouted off unendingly and tirelessly and it's time we put it to bed, right here, right now.

There is no deterrent for murder.

That's right, you heard it here first. On My Masonic Apron. You can quote me to your friends from the ACLU and the Free Mumia Movement, too-- the next time you run into them at a tea party.

If someone wants to kill somebody, they're going to. They don't stop and think about whether they're murdering somebody in a state the conducts the most executions per capita, or the fewest. They're not thinking about what the appeal process will be like, or what the likelihood will be that they'll ever see the inside of a death chamber, or a prison cell, or a courtroom, or the backseat of a police car. They're not thinking at all. And the ones who are don't give a shit anyway.

So, what are we supposed to do? Throw up our hands and say, "Well, there is nothing we can do to deter murder? So... what can you do?"

Here's the big secret about the death penalty: it isn't supposed to be a deterrent. That's why it's called "capital punishment" not "capital deterrent." Capital punishment is in place in this country because it was felt that we as a law-abiding, respectful people need to punish murder in such a way as to say that we will not stand idly by and let these abominable acts pass unnoticed and unpunished in the gravest way possible. None of our punishments in society are deterrents for any crime. People still burn houses down in spite of 15-20 year sentences in prison for arson. People still pull guns during robberies despite harsh prison terms for larcenies commited with the use of a firearm. And people will still kill each other, no matter what you do with them afterwards-- if you can catch them.

Deterrent? Who said anything about that?

I still very much believe in the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for 1st degree murder, especially with aggravating circumstances. In theory. If we can get it right. If we can't, then mandatory life imprisonment will have to do, but I think it's a piss-poor substitute, for it allows murderers the one thing they denied their victims: life. And I don't think that's fair. It's not fair to the victims' families who have to live their lives knowing that the person who slayed their loved ones get to wake up every morning, socialize with other inmates, eat three meals a day, move their bowels, brush their teeth, exercise, watch TV, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. All of these things, even the simplest, commonest among them, the dead cannot enjoy. All because these people thought another's life out there was theirs for the taking.

And some might say the very same thing about capital punishment-- that how can we as a society say that even the life of a convicted killer is ours to take, that this life too has value and worth and the potential for change, and that we dishonor ourselves in the extermination of this life.

And to that, I may just bow my head and say, "Touché."


  1. Wow....I was appalled to see that you wrote on death penalty as I myself participated in a forum discussion on the subject on Tuesday, AND had to talk about it with my students in French 203 (I am not choosing my topics - unfortunately...)

    So I feel like it's all around me lately.

    As a French citizen I am opposed to the death penalty but understand and respect the opposite camp. The more I think about it, hear people's arguments and the more confused I am. May sound totally weak and immature but that's the truth. I see the good in both sides. And we could talk about it endlessly. Still at the end of the day - when the question is being asked, I do say that I am against.
    Hard to build a solid argumentation though.

  2. I don't think it's about the penalty/punishment at all.

    It's about the justice, I think.

    You don't do jail/capital thing for the criminal, you do it for the victims, right?

    And more importantly: justice is really, really hard to mete out. It's so crazily subjective. Man slaughter is worse than rape? (And so on.)

    My main concern is actually convicting the wrong people. The whole system is a bit broken like that.

    Would be much better to reform society, rather than throw people in jails or kill them.

  3. I don't think death is much of a punishment at all, not being a religious sort of chap. I don't see there being fire and brimstone or any kind of final reckoning. Only the nitrogen cycle.

    I think, if anything, it's an easy way out for the offender -- it's just nothing. More often it becomes about revenge, rather than "justice", and really the only people who it hurts are the often entirely innocent family of the offender. It doesn't seem to achieve anything.

    With imprisonment, in theory, there is a chance for the offender to make something of it. Not like licence plates for cars, but it affords them the chance of redemption (an odd choice of word for a militant agnostic, I know). You hear of reformed gang members and the like making something of their life, trying to teach the youth and dissuade them from making the same mistakes. However rare it is.

    You also hear of victims families saying that they didn't get the peace they expected when murderers are executed, and other examples of people forgiving.

    Besides any of that, I like the question "If You All Had a Lion As Your Pet What Would You All Have Done?". I like the use of the past tense. What would you have done. Because the answer is most likely: "get eaten by the lion by accident one day".

  4. Well, Jay just gave me an easy way out of something which would have taken me a while to write. I completely agree with Jay. Jay has allowed me to go and make breakfast 15-20 minutes earlier than I would have. Death for a murderer, is the easy way out. Not every single time (because some of them are so psychologically damaged that they don't really know better), but most of the time.

    And now for a nice warm breakfast.

  5. I don't think that it's realistic to think there is rehabilitation for murderers. We are mammals. Once you get a taste for something, as they say. Basically, we should just put them down. Just my opinion.

  6. Hey man, this is an excellent post and you've articulated your opinion incredibly well. You already know my opinion on it, but I can definitely understand you POV and I do agree with you that the deterrence factor is almost a non-entity.

    Great post!


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