The Corner

John Allen Muhammad, the Death Penalty, and Retributive Punishment

The impending execution of the D.C. sniper has me thinking about capital punishment. I feel morally uneasy about the death penalty when I consider it in the abstract. Yet I am almost indifferent to the question whether it achieves a deterrent effect that life imprisonment would not achieve. To the extent I support the death penalty, it is because I believe that retribution is a legitimate, even essential, part of punishment, and that for certain crimes death is the only meet retribution. This is one such case, given that the guilt of the accused is not in question and the murders were particularly cold-blooded. Regardless of whether most people would agree with that position, I think most people do believe—or perhaps simply feel—that retribution is essential to punishment. Simply ask them whether they would favor a system that, rather than imprisoning criminals, sent them to a tropical resort while achieving a deterrent effect by means of a propaganda campaign that tricked the public into thinking they were in a chain gang somewhere. If you object that this would not deter recidivism, I will modify the example and say: Let us imagine that the convicts, upon leaving their island paradise, are administered some drug that permanently overrides their criminal impulses but does not otherwise alter their personalities. The example is of course outlandish, but the point is that we could imagine an arrangement that would achieve all the desirable effects of the current penal system while not inflicting any retribution upon criminals—and I would find such an arrangement not simply unsatisfying, but unjust.

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