Connecticut appears to be the next state in line to abolish the death penalty – the 17th state to be exact.
I have two questions, though: 1.) What took us so long? 2.) And what are the other states waiting for?
Oh, I’m not worried, I know the death penalty will eventually be abolished across the entire United States. History has shown us that the human race keeps moving toward a more compassionate and civilized society. We definitely have a ways to go, but we’re on the right track. We’re making good progress as a society, I just wish the process didn’t take so long.
So what is taking so long? If we stop for a moment and ask why we have a “death penalty” in the first place, perhaps we can find an answer there. The reasons that come to mind for me are: revenge/justice, deterrence, removing threats from society, and “that’s the way it's been done for thousands of years.”
Justice is defined as, “just behavior or treatment” or “the quality of being fair and reasonable.” Revenge is defined as, “the action of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for a wrong suffered at their hands.” Unfortunately, too many times “justice” is used when what is really meant is “revenge.” So much so, that the two terms have become rather interchangeable in our society.
People talking of “justice” often cite the Biblical passage of “an eye for an eye.” However, this statement is not speaking of justice, nor does it actually speak to inflicting harm on someone because they inflicted harm on another as so many seem to think. The phrase "an eye for an eye" is a quotation from several passages of the Hebrew Bible in which a person who has injured the eye of another is instructed to pay compensation. Here, the Bible is actually speaking of paying for the value of an eye or a tooth in monetary terms, not of inflicting the same or worse treatment on a person for a crime.
Of course, in the moment when we are hurting most, it’s probably fair to say we all initially want revenge. That’s why we have a system to create our laws while outside of a traumatic environment. And fortunately, there are many examples of family members that while grieving from horrific losses at the hands of another, publicly forgo the need for revenge. While many would like us to think so, revenge is not the appropriate response to harm inflicted by another. It is an uncivilized need to try to set things "right" in the mind of the wounded party. Of course, these kinds of things can never truly be set "right."
Imagine a parent openly instructing their 8-year old child to go and seek revenge against another child who they felt did them wrong. I believe most parents would rightly recoil from such a thought. I use this technique a lot – and call it the Child Test. If we wouldn’t openly teach it to our children, and be proud of doing it, then we as adults shouldn’t engage in that behavior either.
It’s difficult to understand how some people still believe that having the death penalty on the books is a deterrent for aberrant behavior when both history and overwhelming research proclaims otherwise. For the average citizen, the death penalty simply does not work as a deterrent. Of course, we’ll always have unbalanced individuals like psychopaths to deal with, but the death penalty will never be a deterrent for these individuals. Nor will it be a deterrent for “acts of passion or rage.” By their very definition, people in these states of mind are not thinking about the long term consequences of their actions, which would be required for the death penalty to act as a deterrent for them. Just a little bit of studying will show that it is painfully apparent that the death penalty does not deter violent crime.
Removing a Threat:
If killing someone is the best we can come up with in order to prevent someone from repeat offenses, then we must have missed a few things. Personally, I could never get past the thought that killing a person that kills another somehow teaches society that killing is wrong and unacceptable.
I’ve also never been a fan of the idea of locking a person up in a jail cell for the rest of their natural born lives. There’s both the absurd cost involved in this approach and the moral question about acknowledging a person’s dignity.
Yes, I know that sending all the criminals to a "penal colony" was tried in Australia and it didn’t work so well. But that was a very long time ago and a lot has changed since then. While many find this notion completely off the wall, I’ve always been a fan of the “Escape from New York” approach. In this movie, violent offenders were removed from society and placed in Manhattan, which had been converted into a maximum security prison. Don’t start typing yet, I’m not suggesting Manhattan, but we easily have the technology to set up an area, perhaps an island, that "inmates" couldn’t escape from where they can be sent to fend for themselves. Basically, if they don’t want to live here by society’s rules, then they can go live somewhere else.
That’s the way it's been done for thousands of years:
Doesn’t even deserve an explanation.
My point in all of this is that surely, there has to be a more civilized and less hypocritical way to handle the people we currently plan to put to death for crimes against society. There is and we will get there. I know we will get there because when I look to history, although there are many examples of individuals and groups that fought to their very deaths to prevent – and actually as it turns out, merely to forestall – positive social evolution, positive social evolution finally won out. We abolished slavery, gave women the vote, stood up for interracial marriage, stopped requiring African Americans to sit at the back of the bus, enacted equal rights, and the list goes on and on.
It takes time for society to embrace change at these levels. I’m not worried – just a little impatient.