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The Death Penalty

what does society want to achieve by any of its punishments?

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, October 08, 1997.

This coming Monday, Gary Davis will be killed by lethal injection in Colorado, making him the first to die from death row in several decades in this state. On cue from stage left have come the predictable herd of pacifists and concerned citizens emoting about the death penalty in general; from stage right come the usual gang of nitwits extolling the virtues of state institutional violence. The air fogs immediately, and virtually no point can be made. A few need to be, though.

The arguments about the death penalty are so worn in the road of people’s minds, that it probably isn’t necessary to review them but simply to count on the collective memory. Yet, it might be best to review a few essential non-sequitur and confusions just for the record, if nothing else. You can start with the conservative’s contention that society is composed of criminals and good citizens and that the lines are never blurred. Yet, about 47% of the murders in this nation are committed by members of the victims’ family or extended family, and the vast majority of murders are one-time crimes of passion. It strikes me that one-time crimes of passion are not affected by thoughts of punishment.

First, reflect that a great deal, but not all, of recent thought about crime and punishment can be boiled down to concern about the benefits of punishment vs. Rehabilitation. If you as a society plan to release a petty but energetic thief back into society, which is to say you do not plan to kill him or lock him up for life, than you need to rehabilitate him for that moment. Otherwise, you will release an even more dangerous person back into your midst, one whose companionship has been solely limited to other and likely worse criminal minds, and who has honed his body into muscular shape, and who has been deprived of the opposite sex for a long time with the obvious results in mind and habit. The reality, however, of extensive contact with the quality of people who serve as guards and therapists at penal institution does not often impress, and their attempts to explain and justify themselves and their existence does little more than confirm the criminal suspicions that civilized life is a game that has accepted moves and countermoves of hypocrisy and deceit for personal benefit. In short, not much different than their own perceptions except the additional annoyance of hypocrisy. Therefore, if you plan to lock someone up, it would make sense that whatever time and money is spent ensures that this person emerges better than when he went in. But a great deal of time and money is now spent insuring the opposite with no public debate or much beyond torpid interest.

If the person has committed finally a capital offense and so convicted, he can be sentenced to life or death. Here logic and common sense have been hosed in a blinding series of hypocrisies that do nothing but insure that the public feels no guilt or responsibility for the action, however much they applaud the result. Here, the question of punishment takes on a new dimension. If you do not plan to release the individual back into society, what points of distinction are there between perpetual punishment and torture, which everybody is supposedly against? It would make sense to send thieves to boot camps or to subject them to corporal punishment and make their life a living hell for the brief period of their punishment, provided there were clear and abundant indications of the rewards of a legally clean life. They would not likely run the risk of that punishment again, if administered fairly for people not a beer away from being a prisoner themselves. But to deprive a murderer of human contact, and subject him to endless prison procedure is arguably torture because it serves no end, either for the individual or for the public, his jailers. It does, however, often satisfy sadistic tendencies of those present and administering the punishment, and exposure to that sort of thing can make others sadists.

So if you logically cannot justify punishing the murderer, because it would be mere torture to punish an individual who will never interact in society again, can you justify spending money for his perpetual upkeep that could go elsewhere? In the end, the value of life within society is indeed money. It is said he should be studied, but after centuries of this sort of thing, has psychology ever leaned anything of benefit or actuality from their studies of the criminal mind? Hardly. Just new dissertation paper topics.