home Features Capital punishment: Demolishing a cultural practice | Robert Joseph Bolton

Capital punishment: Demolishing a cultural practice | Robert Joseph Bolton

Robert Joseph Bolton argues that the barbarism of capital punishment goes beyond the destruction of the ‘right to life’.

     Wednesday 10th of October marked World Day Against the Death Penalty, with UCC’s Amnesty society leading a campaign against this outdated and backwards barbaric act. As if the last century wasn’t violent enough, the idea that an eye for an eye makes the whole world see is common in first world countries, most notably parts of the United States.

     As someone who often thinks about these common moral debates, I have established 3 fresh arguments that can be made against the death penalty.

     Those who argue for capital punishment correctly say that it permanently removes the worst criminals from society and acts as a deterrent for crime. Those against it highlight its gross cost, its disregard for basic human rights and cases where the innocent have wrongly been put to death.

     Both arguments are weak. Death penalty advocates live in medieval times. Society moves on from archaic practices. We do not live in grass huts anymore.

     Death penalty antagonists rely on practical arguments and a few human rights violations here and there. If Amnesty wants complete abolition of the death penalty, it needs to offer something in its place. Crime prevention anyone?

     Cost is a variable that could be reduced. Convicting the innocent could be mended by more mature detective and judicial work. All we have left then is a purely philosophical notion, that capital punishment denies human rights. Could it be then that in the future the only rebuttal we have left is human rights, which the anti-death penalty circles overuse?

     Human rights are man’s greatest idea but philosophy’s input, although coherently argued, is meritless when it comes to pragmatic politics. People want to see results. Complex philosophical arguments are confined to academia, or student applied ethics summer exams. And let’s get this fact, philosophy’s long, tedious arguments and explanations within explanations isolate the public mind. Capital punishment is a serious issue. It should not belong within the walls of universities, but it does, so the general public are unaware of great intellectualism within the death penalty debate. The public mind is left with only emotionalism and compassion, along with a few little catch phrases to argue its point. My arguments against capital punishment are hopefully more straightforward and devoid of labyrinthine philosophy.

     Firstly, capital punishment is based on a misunderstanding of violence, which you can simply wish it away with the threat of death. A misunderstanding that is glaringly obvious. As Amnesty International has shown, the death penalty has no unique deterrent on violent crime. If sugar didn’t make my tea taste better then I wouldn’t use it. We must question why death is not enough of a monster to scare the monsters we put to death. Statistics I found on antideathpenalty.org show that all states in the US that have legalized the death penalty have in fact higher rates of violent crime then those who do not. A child would realize something’s up here. It seems criminals would much rather see their enemy dead first than themselves.

     James Gilligan, a highly respected psychiatrist who I like to quote often even argues that the death penalty encourages more murders than it deters. This point highlights a feature of violent crime, that violent criminals are suicidal anyway. Here is where the misunderstanding lies. Gilligan points out that the most violent criminals come from violent, abusive backgrounds. The fact that many commit suicide before they are even convicted demonstrates the torment and misery that hides inside these criminals. Sadly, it seems violent criminals support capital punishment, as death provides them the peace they never had.

     Secondly, capital punishment fuels, fulfils and exacerbates our vengeance mentality. Nature’s smart but cunning mind has given humans compassion, anger and vengeance to fight back our foes. When a serious crime has been committed, us, the general public develop a vengeance mentality. We want to “get back” at the criminal. But revenge is futile. At no point in the revenge equation does the word “prevention” appear. My opinion is that capital punishment only serves to calm and medicate our vengeance. It is our way of getting back at the criminal and nothing more. This is selfish to the point of barbarism, because it is only when the crime is committed that our anger flares.

     For me it is too little too late. The public become hauntingly satisfied when a criminal has been put to death. Capital punishment allows us to believe that action only after the crime has been committed is ok, the way to go and the answer. But why wait to do something about crime only after crime has been committed, only after someone has suffered the trauma of rape, the numbness of abuse or the end that is murder. The culture of revenge underscores the very crime it punishes.

     This leads me onto my third point. I believe prison/punishment as a way of dealing with crime is a joke in the first place. Both capital punishment and prison require crime to occur. By believing capital punishment is an adequate measure of fighting crime, we forget about the reasons why violent criminals become violent in the first place. Therefore we do not look for prevention. It is a fact that whenever justice has been served, it is only after the crime has been committed. This is a fallacy. For the victim and the family it is always too late. I believe our obsession with justice is fuelled by our vengeance mentality; nature’s way of making sure we fight back. But then again, not everything that is natural is good. (Which happens to be another fallacy called the naturalistic fallacy)

     “Justice” is civilisation’s Lady Gaga of law. Over hyped and overrated. It causes us to destructively forget the other type of justice, called injustice. The preoccupation that capital punishment supporters have is on revenge justice. But justice can only be served only after the crime has been committed. In other words, people must suffer first before justice can be carried out.

     My question is this, wouldn’t a society free of violent crime in the first place be happier, better, more Utopian? As I have said, our vengeance emotions trigger when we hear of violent crime, so thoughts about preventing it in the first place don’t even come to mind. We just want to “lock ’em up” and throw away the key. Capital punishment serves to make us think something is being done about crime and so we may think it’s the only answer, especially when some criminals don’t seem to learn their lesson.

     What we need to realise is two things.

     One, that violent crime is preventable. Capital punishment seems to be more of a cultural practice than an answer for crime. The American dream philosophy is centred on the concept of individualism, where the person can achieve anything if they put their mind to it and where the person is responsible for their own life and their actions. But Americans forget that there are forces in this world that can prohibit such aspirations. Violent crime does not have to happen. The criminal is made, not born.

     The second thing we need to realise is that injustices are the primary reasons for violent crime. Abuse, social deprivation, poverty and adverse experiences are all factors that create the violent criminal. Therefore, it is not justice we should demand, but social justice. Justice before the crime, not after it. American individualistic attitudes might say this does not matter, that poverty is no excuse for committing a crime. But again, this is where individualistic attitudes can deny that there are forces that create the criminal, where the criminal has had no control over these forces.

     One of the most destructive myths that pervade the world today is the idea the violent crime cannot be prevented. Capital punishment is in my opinion then the expression of this myth. As a result, I do not see capital punishment as the way forward, because it never was and never can be. Capital punishment is desperate, an embarrassment. It is enacted because of vengeful, deranged thinking. Sadly it is often such vengeance that results in crime in the first place.

     Crime is preventable, but politicians will only direct their energy on social injustices if the public vote for them to do so. But first the public need to educate themselves with a little sociology. I say to advocates of the death penalty, crime is in your hands, but them clean.