Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My Own Opposition to Capital Punishment

I am utterly opposed to the dreadful barbarism of the death penalty, and advocate a life sentence without the possibility of parole for murderers. My primary reason for holding this view is not the usual one that mistaken convictions can take place and demonstrably have done, and without any possibility of a redress of that ultimate injustice -- though it seems to me this reason should surely be compelling for all but the most murderous.

My own reason for repudiating the death penalty is that while murdering a murderer does not reverse the loss to the murderer's victims, capital punishment actually amplifies the loss to those victims who remain among the living, taking from them sooner than need be their chance of finding their way eventually, on their own terms and in their own good time, to a miraculous forgiveness of the murderer, face to face, and hence to a different world of possibility and promise beyond that loss before they die themselves.

Contrary to the claims one regularly finds in the sentimental pseudo-literature of kitsch execution apologetics, it is actually rarely the case that capital punishment provides anything like a satisfying or meaningful "closure" for the living victims of a murderer's crimes. But it is always the case that capital punishment forecloses political possibilities of the real elaboration and substantiation of their freedom that might otherwise emerge out of their profound distress, and that is something no freedom loving state should ever countenance.

Hannah Arendt proposed that the experience of freedom is materialized in the offering up of deeds to the hearing of the world, whether works, judgments, testaments, promises, or, most crucially, acts of forgiveness. To indulge in the meaningless cycle of violence and revenge, to demand an eye for an eye, a life for a life, is to sin against liberty in its unique political substance. It is the proper work of the secular democratic state, to the contrary, to enable the experience of freedom, peer to peer, through the provision of nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of disputes, and the facilitation of the exchange of opinions and stories thereby, through the provision of a legible scene of informed, nonduressed consent, and the facilitation of the making of promises and the forgiving of offenses thereby, through the provision of an equal recourse to law and the celebration of the diversity of lifeways flourishing thereby.


jimf said...

> My primary reason for holding this view is not the
> usual one that mistaken convictions can take place
> and demonstrably have done, and without any possibility
> of a redress of that ultimate injustice. . .

I've often fantasized about how I would feel if I were
sent to prison, or even condemned to death, for a crime I
know I didn't commit.

Intellectually, I understand that life simply isn't fair,
and there's a certain "risk overhead" of living, and
of living in human communities -- being struck by lightning,
getting cancer, being injured or dying in an automobile
(or train or plane) accident, being killed in a war (or a
terrorist attack) -- even by "friendly fire", being
victimized by a con artist, or, yes, being screwed
by the criminal justice system. Those are all non-zero
risks of being alive, and of being a human among humans.

What's even weirder to me, though, is the warping of
reality that takes place after you've been "incorrectly"
convicted of a crime. Even if you know you're innocent, in
a sense it doesn't really matter anymore -- the "truth"
becomes socially defined -- you've been declared to
be guilty by the rightful authorities, therefore you
**are** guilty, no matter what "actually happened"
(in some "scientific" sense of the phrase). I imagine that
after years of being told you did something, you might
even come to doubt your own memories of what really

I've heard that if you undergo psychological "counselling"
while you're in prison, and you maintain your innocence
in the face of that counselling, you are held to be
"in denial" about your guilt, and that continuing to
claim innocence is in fact held against you in a
parole hearing. Convicted felons lying about or
denying the truth **may be the case** most of
the time, but when it's not, being told
you are is truly Orwellian.

People use statistics (whether consciously or unconsciously) --
"Bayesian" reasoning, if you will -- and there are always
exceptions to what are statistically good guesses in
the absence of definitive evidence. I've been in three
situations in which I've been pegged on the basis of such
"statistical" reasoning -- all three, oddly enough, involving
accusations of smoking cigarettes -- once by a police
officer on a subway, once by my mother, and once by a
dentist (who got very unprofessionally pissed off at me).
No, I have never smoked a cigarette, so no, officer, you
couldn't have seen me smoking on the train; no, mom,
those ashes you found in the bathtub must have been yours;
and no, doctor, whatever staining you see is from tea
and/or coffee, not from cigarettes. Deal with it.

Luke said...

I agree with the sentiments of this post. Keeping a person alive leaves open the option of reconciliation, whereas the death sentence does not. In fact, if immortality could be bestowed on the bereaved as well as the murderer this would be ideal, increasing the likelihood of such a resolution.

Jimf, it sounds like what you're describing is confirmation bias. As humans who dread uncertainty we're all prone to it, and it's one of the nastiest things in the world once it sets in.