by Gavin J. Grant
The death penalty is alive and well as Western calendars and Bill Gates’ computers nervously approach the year 2000. In the US alone at least 490 people have been executed since 1976. But, no matter how much the practice of state mandated killing is debated, we need to abolish it now.
Many of us instinctively know it is wrong. There are no rationales or arguments to support it. Taking it as given that we don’t want any killing in our society, it is wrong that we ask or order anyone to carry out the death penalty for us. Should we in turn execute the executioners?
Where does the death penalty fit into our culture? It has become a part of our increasingly punitive societies. Western countries such as the UK and the USA have recently been put under the microscope by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Much to the governments’ embarrassment the findings were atrocious. The US has more people in prison than any other country, per 1000 population. In both countries the building and maintaining of prisons is seen as a growth industry. The number of people in prison in the USA has doubled in the past 15 years to 2,000,000. Sentences for consensual crimes and the associated confiscation’s of property provide huge amounts of funding for the government. (Do you know that if the government finds drugs in your home that are more than what they consider personal use, they can seize all your assets?). Is there an incentive for the government to cut crime? No. Not while it provides economic growth, money and security for government employees. The death penalty is part of that fiscal and punitive climate.
Fiscal Reasoning: Reformation must begin at home.
The cost of the death penalty is variously estimated at $1-2 million per execution. This amount would cover the costs of imprisonment of an individual for between 30-60 years–long enough for almost all of us to die naturally in the state’s ward–if that is what is wanted. The cash cost of the death penalty can be discounted as an argument for or against it, as the costs of imprisonment are about equal. Therefore there are no fiscal reasons for governments using the death penalty to cease. It is the strong moral stand against the death penalty that the US government is afraid to take.
Governments have generally shown little or no moral sense and cannot be expected to anytime soon; therefore it is the vocal individual and the financed lobbiers who will end the use of the death penalty.
Why is the death penalty used?
The death penalty is generally used in the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ deterrent-style of justice. This is pre-Christian justice that in ‘Christian’ societies was supposed to be outmoded by the Ten Commandments. Despite separation of church and state and increased urbanization and complexity in society we have not yet managed to halt or seriously diminish the murder rate. We accept the tide of murder, rape and bodily harm as the cost of living in our wonderful modern world. And as a corollary we accept the use of murder by the state as an attempt to halt further murders.
The death penalty is a deterrent to one person only, the one who is murdered by the state. That it has never worked for anyone else is as obvious as the continuing occurrence of crimes that have the death penalty attached for the offenders.
A Humane Death
Since 1976, when the US Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was constitutional, it has been re-instated in a number of US states, provoking much discussion of methods. A recent hanging and the use of a firing squad caused uproar against ‘barbarism.’ Even the long fry of the electric chair is losing popularity; the quiet death of lethal injection is sweeping the other methods aside. The same humane method used on your aging pets. One place this method has yet to be popularized is China where the bodies of death penalty victims are harvested for organ transplants.
If state regulated murder is to continue I want to reverse this trend. I want blood, pain, barbarism. I want to make the squeamish throw-up. If this is too ‘harsh’ for us, then let us stop it, but rather than tiptoe through the legal barriers, crash on through. If we are to be killers, for I believe that by staying silent on this we all support it, then we should have full knowledge of what we are doing. I don’t want to watch it on ‘reality tv’, I want to go to my local prison and witness it. I want it to be Paris in 1789. St. Andrews in Scotland when witches were burned on the beach. Rwanda. Cambodia. Kosovo where state-supported mass murder is happening right now as you read. New York State. It’s murder and we have agreed to it.
Except in Massachusetts in 1998. Representative John Slattery changed his mind and voted against bringing the death penalty back. He was the swing vote and he couldn’t have it on his conscience. I wrote and thanked him. Now letters are needed to the politicians in states where the death penalty is legal. They need to be told that we and they have blood on our hands and that we want it stopped. These politicians and their bloody-handed supporters are the ones applauding murder when death penalties are handed down, refusing final appeals, witnessing the murders.
I don’t know what it will take to reduce the types of crime where presently we murder the criminal. Obviously the death penalty has not worked as a deterrent, as crime rates show. Perhaps more teachers? Money and respect for education? Individuals taking responsibility for their own actions (come on Bill C.)? Less gun manufacturers given licenses to produce weapons? Less arms trade within and without the country? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t want the blood of state-sponsored murder of my hands.