Why capital punishment?
What makes a society kill with calculated, cold-blooded rationality?
If I were ever going to support the death penalty, certainly the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, would qualify for my approval. After all, he and his brother killed four people and injured more than 250 others, apparently without a thought for the lives they were changing, wrecking, and ending. Tsarnaev is reported to have shown little or no remorse, nor has he ever denied his part in the attack. He was quite willing to plead guilty and accept life in prison without parole if the state would take the death penalty off the table.
But even in this case, I am as revolted by the penalty verdict as I was by the initial outrage.
Perhaps more revolted.
How can I possibly say this? The guy is an admitted mass murderer. Why shouldn’t he get just what he gave out? Why should society treat him to free room and board, albeit in a maximum security prison, free medical care, free psychological counselling, free education programs if he wants them, and all for the rest of what may be a long life behind bars?
Some of the families of the victims don’t want him executed, either, but not (at least not explicitly) for the same reason that I oppose the death penalty. According to press reports, some of the families want him out of the limelight, and to the extent possible out of their lives, as fast as possible. A plea-bargained life sentence would have sent Tsarnaev to jail relatively quickly, with little fuss. Now, there will be appeals upon appeals, death row pleas for clemency – potentially, years and years of continued torment.
I sympathize with them, and I respect their practical, self-soothing rationale. But I don’t share it. I have another reason for opposing the death penalty, in all cases.
My reason has nothing to do with hoping that Tsarnaev will be rehabilitated in prison, or that he will find religion, or that he eventually will see his evil deeds for what they were and accept responsibility. I don’t even want him to suffer, as decades of incarceration surely would be. Frankly, I don’t care a bit about Tsarnaev and his health, welfare, state of mind, or moral condition. He is quite irrelevant to my opposition to the death penalty.
That opposition is rooted in both my reason and my emotions.
Rationally, I dream of and long for as enlightened and civilized a society as we can manage to create.
Such a society understands that violence, even state violence, perhaps most of all state violence, is not civilized. Public lashings, dismemberment, flaying, stoning, burning at the stake, burying alive, beheading – which of us doesn’t see these punishments as barbaric, as remnants of a level of social and moral development that we have striven to put behind us. If these punishments are barbaric, how can firing squads, electric chairs, and lethal injections be civilized? Yes, most of the time the suffering of the condemned is reduced, or at least hidden from our direct view. But surely that alone doesn’t make killing anything less or other than killing.
A rational society recognizes the many contributing factors that we’ve always known about anecdotally, factors like brain states, acculturation, and personal circumstances that are now beginning to be confirmed and explained by neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioural economics. As our society becomes more attuned to the reality of the immense complexity of the human mind, and less enslaved to ancient prescriptions and vengeance, we should be finding it harder and harder to justify taking a life, even the life of one who has already taken lives.
Emotionally, I am quite simply disgusted that our supposedly-advanced society continues to support an officially-mandated death industry.
Compare the individual criminal killer with the state that seeks to kill him.
The spurned partner kills in a fit of passion, a spasm of jealousy, a moment of fear, a stab of shame. The thief kills to get his loot or to prevent arrest, or to cover his trail. The gang member kills to secure his place in what is often the only group that will have him. The “stand your ground” shooter or the over-militarized police officer kills for racism or hatred or a sense of privilege or power. The terrorist kills for his god, or for personal salvation. Each killer has a reason, such as it is. Only the serial killer and the contract killer kill with the kind of cold-blooded nonchalance that makes us shiver with fear and puzzlement. They’re psychopaths.
And so is society, when it kills.
Society kills cold-bloodedly. Society kills deliberately, with careful attention to rules and procedures that are in essence little different from rituals. The special cell block, the last meal, the visit by clergy, the last walk, the bank of official witnesses, the last words of the condemned – all of these are rituals mandated by the state.
There are companies that manufacture electric chairs and nerve toxins specifically for use in killing. Specialist prison officers manage the last acts of the lives of the condemned with practiced smoothness.
It’s all so calm, so pre-calculated, so precise, that it makes me want to vomit with disgust.
The serial killer and the contract killer identify their victims, plan their attacks, and carry out their murderous acts without qualm, without guilt or remorse or regret. Killing for them is, in practical terms, a neutral act, one without moral dimensions.
The state is no different, and no better, when it kills.
I can more easily understand, even accept, the father of a murdered daughter jumping over the barriers in a courtroom and strangling the accused than I can understand or accept how all of us can sit back and plan, then carry out, the passionless, psychopathic killing that is capital punishment.
So, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, despite your being a willing killer, you should rot in jail, and good riddance to you. Society rejects you; consider yourself ejected into your own immoral space.
Or maybe, because you’re a willing killer, we should put you away, to show ourselves how different from you we are — killing you will just show us how much like you we are willing to be.