The death penalty is not a deterrent. The death penalty is racist. The death penalty is costly. The death penalty risks executing innocent people, and probably has. The death penalty is not used in nearly all other industrialized democracies. The death penalty probably won’t bring victims’ families real peace of mind.
Each one of these is an argument I believe about the death penalty. I’ve made them all before, to one person or another. I have them down cold: I can recite the statistics on how much likelier a person is to get the death penalty if their victims is white rather than black; I can tell you that it costs the state at least $1 million to execute someone, often ten times that, and that California has probably spent over $4 billion total on the death penalty; I can tell you about men like Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos De Luna who were executed despite strong evidence of their innocence, and men like John Thompson, who were nearly executed before being exonerated. I can give you half-a-dozen pragmatic, evidence-based reasons for opposing the death penalty.
And yet if I’m being truly honest with myself, and with you, none of these arguments means very much to me.
It’s not that I don’t think they’re good arguments. They’re all correct, or I wouldn’t make them. It’s just that they have very little to do with the reason I oppose the death penalty. That’s because my opposition to the death penalty is entirely rooted in a visceral horror at the intentional taking of defenseless human life. I make those other arguments against the death penalty strategically, when I think they will persuade people. But they don’t matter much to me, because if the facts were otherwise, it wouldn’t change my position on the death penalty. If the death penalty were guaranteed not to kill innocent people, I would still oppose it. If there was no racial difference in the likelihood of receiving the death penalty, I would still oppose it. If other industrial democracies used the death penalty frequently, I would still oppose it. Even if it were a deterrent, I would still oppose it, because I don’t think you can murder people just because doing so causes other people to think twice about murdering people themselves.
I oppose the death penalty because I believe it’s almost always immoral to kill anyone who does not pose an immediate physical threat to someone else. And since practically speaking, here in 21st century America, it’s possible to eliminate the threat that even the most hardened killer poses, I don’t believe that we can ever justify killing someone for a crime they have committed. For me, that’s the end of it. There’s not really any other element to the calculus. It’s a very strong instinct I have, it’s not shared by most, and a lot of people would recoil in revulsion at it. But I can’t get rid of it, because it’s far too essential a belief.
Frankly, I suspect there are plenty of people who oppose the death penalty who have similarly non-rational reasons, but who end up making all of the aforementioned arguments because they are persuasive to others, rather than because they are their own reasons. That is to say, I think plenty of people who use the argument about risks of executing the innocent are not really interested in the real level of risk of executing the innocent, they are absolutists like myself who are disgusted by the spectacle of a person being lethally injected. But because it’s hard to persuade someone else to be disgusted by something they’re not disgusted by (since disgust is largely instinctual), we end up making the above arguments, even though we’d still be unhappy even if every single one of those problems were excised. Because I want to be honest, however, I feel it’s important to be clear on why I oppose the death penalty. It’s not because it’s racist or risky or costly; it’s because every single usage of it fundamentally assaults my sense of justice, even if that usage is non-racist, non-risky, and non-costly.
I know that we need to make innocence arguments in order to be persuasive, because “Can’t you see how horrible this is?” only persuades the already-persuaded. It’s also worth noting, however, that I think more people would be viscerally disturbed by the death penalty if it were made more real to them. Albert Camus, in “Reflections on the Guillotine,” tells of his father, who strongly supported the death penalty after a prominent local case in which man was convicted of robbing and murdering an entire family. Camus’ father wanted to see justice done, so he went to watch the man be guillotined. (The French continued to use the guillotine until 1977.) Camus says that when his father came home from the event, his face was distorted and he could not speak. Instead, he simply went to his bedroom, lay down, and suddenly began to vomit. Camus explains that his father could only support executing the murderer because he hadn’t actually contemplated what that meant. But once he understood, he was horrified: “He had just discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrases with which it was masked. Instead of thinking of the slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that quivering body that had just been dropped onto a board to have its head cut off.”
A person may have committed a horrible crime, one in which they brutally abused other people. But when they are taken to be executed, they have always been turned powerless and almost pitiful. A prisoner in chains is weak compared to his captor, and there’s something disturbing about committing violence upon a weak individual, irrespective of how tyrannical they may once have been. Gaddafi and Hussein, at the ends of their lives, were miserable specimens. They had once been killers themselves, but by the day of their deaths they had been reduced to little more than bodies in cages. Killing a person in a cage seems one-sided and sadistic, however emotionally compelling vengeance may be when talked of abstractly.
George Orwell says something similar in “Revenge is Sour.” He writes of seeing a former SS officer in a prisoner of war camp in 1945. The ex-Nazi was now a bedraggled nonentity, kicked and shoved about by his guards. As Orwell wrote, when he actually saw the man in the flesh, “the Nazi torturer of one’s imagination, the monstrous figure against whom one had struggled for so many years, dwindled to this pitiful wretch, whose obvious need was not for punishment, but for some kind of psychological treatment.” Orwell says there is a bleak contrast between our fantasies of revenge and its reality. “Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing S.S. officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting.”
But one aspect of contemporary capital punishment in the United States is that steps have been taken to ensure that people don’t experience that feeling of disgust. We do not conduct public executions, because if we saw what we were doing, more people might react like Camus’ father and simply begin throwing up. We have also, as many observers have noted, “medicalized” capital punishment through using lethal injection instead of the more viscerally unsavory methods. The contrast between lethal injection and the guillotine is illuminating, actually. Lethal injection instinctively feels more humane than decapitation; after all, it’s just “putting somebody to sleep.” But in reality, it can cause excruciating pain. As Amnesty International has suggested, it only gives the appearance of being humane. In fact, the guillotine, with its near-instantaneous effect, might be far more humane for the person actually being executed. Yet it’s inconceivable that the guillotine would be used in the contemporary United States, for the obvious reason that it would make us all sick to our stomachs. Anyone who is serious about their support for the death penalty, though, should be fine with public decapitations. (Interestingly, the Saudi government has made this point when criticized about their own controversial record of beheadings. A beheading, they say, is just a more honest and efficient way of doing what we already do in the U.S. It’s a point that’s difficult to respond to, unless you’re just as horrified by our own record as you are by theirs.)
I understand, then, that it’s always going to be hard to persuade people to feel an emotional hatred of the death penalty if it does not come naturally to them, and that my own feelings can’t be rationally defended, just as a belief that we should all be decent to one another can’t be rationally defended. But instead of just setting aside our emotional convictions, and trying to persuade people with intellectual arguments about deterrence, risk, cost, and fairness, I think we ought to be trying to make the reality of the death penalty more intelligible to people, to ensure that nobody can talk about it abstractly without thinking about what it actually means to strap a person down and kill them. I want people like Robert Pruett to seem like conscious human beings, which they are, rather than malevolent abstractions. It’s easy to endorse doing violence to words; it’s harder when we think about a “quivering body,” a person sweating as they are laid onto a board to have a blade dropped, or a needle inserted.