I thought this comment from a reader was interesting:
That’s pretty much the same as the argument that the death penalty doesn’t deter, which is also a cop-out.
I don’t mean to pick on the reader, but I think this is exactly wrong — but in interesting ways. I agree that deterrence is often a red herring in debates about the death penalty. Either the death penalty is justified in a particular instance — or it isn’t. The death penlty cannot be justified by the deterrence argument. But the key difference is that the death penalty is punishment, administered only after due process. A government policy of torture is not justifiable as punishment. Or if it is (which is not my position), that argument has nothing to do with the torture debate under way right now. And if it were a legitimate form of punishment, it could only be administered after guilt was established via due process. That is pretty much the opposite of the case with enemy combatants.
Update: From a reader:
but it drives me crazy when intelligent conservatives concede that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Of course it is a deterrent. If you think not, pass a death penalty law for running stop lights, or more seriously, for using a firearm in the commission of a robbery — and you would quickly see how big a deterrence results from the death penalty.
I concede that the way America has administered the death penalty in the last 30 years has minimized its deterrent effect (except perhaps in Texas, Florida and a few other states).
I just cannot understand how liberals often “win” the argument over whether the death penalty is a deterrent or, as another example, whether torture works. There are fair arguments against the death penalty and torture, but “not working” is not one of them.
Well, I’m not saying that a benefit of the death penalty isn’t that it deters. And of course I believe it is a deterrence, not a perfect one or anything like that. But of course it’s a deterrence.
Other readers are asking me why the death penalty cannot be justified as a deterrent.
Here’s my point: Deterrence has nothing to do with guilt. A guilty man either deserves punishment or he doesn’t. The deterrence factor doesn’t make someone more, or less, deserving of punishment. As Ernest van Den Haag put it: “If deserved, capital punishment should be imposed. If not, it should not be. Deterrence, however useful, cannot morally justify any punishment.”
Now I could understand the deterrence argument working differently in terms of military law during war, but but not for crimes committed by civilians on American soil.