Whom Should We Kill?

by Dave Schuler on March 30, 2014

There’s an interesting post at The Moderate Voice, re-posted from The Economist, about the state of capital punishment, particularly in the United States:

AMERICA carried out 39 executions last year. This puts the country in some unsavoury international company; only China, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia put more people to death (albeit by a fairly large margin in China and Iran). Our colleagues over at Graphic Detail have plotted these executions on a rather grim chart.

For all the public hand-wringing over the death penalty, the number of places that carry it out and the number of people killed is rising. Amnesty reckons that 23,392 people are living under death sentences worldwide for crimes including treason, embezzlement and adultery.

I wish the opinion piece went into the issue in a little more depth. In the countries of Europe that have abolished the death penalty, that generally has not been done through the democratic process. Public opinion frequently supports the death penalty even in countries that have abolished it. In those countries is has been abolished by elites rather than by the will of the people. When it was abolished 25 years ago two-thirds of the French continued to support the death penalty. In today’s France about 45% of the people support the death penalty, about 40% of Britons and Canadians do.

85% of the Japanese support the death penalty; more than 70% of Mexicans do. Public opinion in China and India supports the death penalty. My general impression is that people who live in large countries are more likely to support the death penalty than those who live in small ones.

I don’t know whether I’m out-of-step with my fellow Americans, three fifths of whom support the death penalty or not. I think we continue to administer the death penalty too frequently. As of this year we applied roughly one death penalty per 9 million residents. I think its application should be very rare, even rarer than that, imposed only in those cases in which there is no doubt of the guilt of the convicted, and only for the most heinous of crimes in which the rate of recidivism is 100%. That could, effectively, mean no death penalty at all.

When immigrants come here although they may leave their material possessions behind, they bring their values and political beliefs with them. Since the countries from which we should expect future immigration continue to impose the death penalty and public opinion typically favors the death penalty in those countries more than it does here, I suspect that we should expect support for the death penalty to rise here rather than decline.

A majority of the people in the world support the death penalty. That doesn’t make them right but it’s a reality we should acknowledge.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jimbino March 30, 2014 at 10:16 am

The death penalty is like eating meat. If people had to participate personally in the process, both might well be abolished or at least greatly diminished.

Ben Wolf March 30, 2014 at 10:19 am

How can any government supposedly based on the principles of liberty possess authority to murder its citizens? This ought to enrage right-libertarians but they remain strangely silent on the issue.

Andy March 30, 2014 at 1:22 pm

I am personally strongly opposed to the death penalty and would like to see it abolished. Obviously, most do not agree and that is a reality I have to accept.

John Burgess March 30, 2014 at 6:07 pm

I’ve no problem with the death penalty in theory, but enough problems with it in practice that I’m willing to see it banned. My major difficulty is with the way the courts are less than fully accurate. With the death penalty, there’s no do-over when there’re mistakes.

... March 30, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Schuler, Ted Bundy, among others, would fit your criteria.

And coming from astate notorious for attracting serial killers, I really don’t have a problem with it morally. Practically, I think it is a sentence handed out too often, and believe criteria similar to Schuler’s should be in use.

... March 30, 2014 at 6:58 pm

I should also point out the obvious, which is that once someone is executed they will not offend again, and that is the only way to be sure. Bundy escaped custody at least twice and was involved in several other escape attempts. He even got a couple of hacksaw blades into Florida’s death row and had sawn through one bar before being discovered.

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