The Corner

On the Death Penalty

I’m still getting a lot negative feedback on my death penalty column from last week. That’s hardly surprising (even though it wasn’t a particularly popular column here, traffic-wise). What is a bit more surprising is how many people seem to have not understood my point. I’ve reread the column a bunch of times and I still don’t see what’s so hard to grasp.

The gist of my argument is that this emphasis on “uncertainty” isn’t nearly as persuasive as those making it seem to think it is. Death penalty opponents seem fixated on the idea that one wrongful execution demolishes the case for the entire death penalty. Anti-death penalty activists insisted the doubt about Troy Davis cast doubt on the entire system and, by extension, the execution of anybody. Note: I don’t think Davis was innocent. But even if he was innocent I don’t buy that one man’s innocence blows up the case for the death penalty. From my column:

But he proves no such thing. At best, his case proves that you can’t be certain about Davis. You most certainly can be certain about other murderers. If the horrible happens and we learn that Davis really was not guilty, that will be a heart-wrenching revelation. It will cast a negative light on the death penalty, on the Georgia criminal-justice system, and on America.

But you know what it won’t do? It won’t render Lawrence Russell Brewer one iota less guilty or less deserving of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment are extremely selective about the cases they make into public crusades. Strategically, that’s smart; you don’t want to lead your argument with “unsympathetic persons.” But logically, it’s problematic. There is no transitive property that renders one heinous murderer less deserving of punishment simply because some other person was exonerated of murder.

Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people including 19 children. He admitted it. How does doubt in Troy Davis’s case make McVeigh less deserving of death?

Whether you agree with it or not, I think my argument is pretty clear. And yet, I keep getting email from people who simply restate the argument I’m objecting to ONLY MUCH LOUDER. “You can’t be certain!” “You can never be certain!” etc.

I think that’s all nonsense. You may not be able to be certain in some cases, but in other cases it’s quite easy to be certain. For starters, let’s have a death penalty in those cases.

It’s a strange thing. I think that opponents of the death penalty have convinced  themselves that this uncertainty argument is a silver bullet. If we can just prove one case was wrong, we can through magic or the transitive property prove them all unjust. That was the point of one worst movies of the last decade, The Life of David Gale, the makers of which owe me two hours worth of The Life of Jonah Goldberg.

Now I don’t want anyone — anyone — to ever be wrongly executed. One misapplied death penalty is one too many. At which point opponents of the death penalty say “Aha. Then you most oppose the death penalty for everyone.”

Really? Must I?

If anything, I’m even more opposed to police accidentally shooting bystanders or shop clerks mistaken for robbers. Well we know that happens. And yet, I’m still in favor of cops carrying guns. I’m against — absolutely against — all sorts of accidental deaths that are the direct result of government messing something up. I’m against Air Traffic Controller errors that lead to deaths, but I’m still in favor of flying and air traffic controllers. It is a scandal, given how much we spend on the death penalty and all the endless appeals, for any mistake to go as far as it has. But why is it that the death penalty is the only government function that must be abolished after a single error?

Ultimately, I’ve decided that one’s attitude to the death penalty is largely faith-based. At the most basic level the decision to support or oppose capital punishment comes from a core first principle, an assertion of fundamental belief. That’s why, I think,  opponents invest so much passion in these second-tier arguments.  They know shouting “You just don’t get it!” doesn’t work. So they put that energy into technical, procedural or abstract issues that don’t get to the heart of the question.

And that’s why I find nearly all of the arguments against the death penalty insufficient or unpersuasive. “World opinion” — by which most people seem to mean the UK, France and parts of Italy — is against us. Okay, who cares? I mean that seriously. Why should it matter? These are our laws, not theirs. And when I hear a European opponent of capital punishment declare we’re no different than China or Saudi Arabia for keeping capital punishment on the books,  that strikes me as more of an indictment of European reasoning skills than of American justice. We don’t execute people for their political or religious beliefs. We execute them for first degree murder. It’s a big difference.

This blogger, in a very lengthy rejoinder to my column, asserts that I support the death penalty for purposes of “revenge” — since I don’t think deterrent alone is a justification. Maybe this is just semantics, but what he calls “revenge” I call justice.

(Also, as a side note, I find it interesting how so many secular people use fundamentally religious arguments without admitting it. I understand that under Christianity vengeance is the Lord’s. Well, whose is it in a secular society?).

The best — or at least most honorable — argument against capital punishment actually proves my point. Many prolifers tell me that they are against the death penalty because they are prolife from beginning to end. That’s great. But that’s an assertion of faith.

From my more secular vantage point, the arguments over abortion and capital punishment don’t track each other very closely.  There’s no trial with an abortion and the life ended has committed no crime. The nature and extent of the state’s involvement in an execution and a terminated pregnancy are profoundly different. I should note that the Catholic Church — at least to my understanding — has never seen abortion and capital punishment as anything like the same thing. 

I’m not saying the seamless garment adherents are wrong to oppose the death penalty. I’m saying that the basis for their opposition is grounded in something you either believe or you don’t.