There are many people in our times who still support the death penalty. The reasons for why they might support it vary:
- Because they want to execute someone for a wrongdoing
- They believe it is a deterrent against crime
- It is cheaper to execute people than to incarcerate them
- Execution is better than incarceration
Most of my argument will be directed against the first point.
That being said, let me draw some attention to the other three points so that I can clear some misconceptions regarding the nature behind capital punishment.
Who says we need to incarcerate anybody as an alternative to execution?
There was a time when people who were caught speeding on the road were more likely to be subjected to a jail sentence. Nowadays, it is likely that such people are going to be subjected to a fine and/or road suspension, as people decided it was somehow more ethical and cost effective to merely fine people, rather than putting them in a local jail and being locked there for days or even weeks.
In ancient times, there were some societies that also practiced the execution of thieves, burglars and counterfeiters. While such cases are still reported in a few developing countries, the same cannot be said for the industrial world, where the death penalty for non-homicide offences have long since been abolished.
That being said, there are only a few countries left in the world that still continue to put people to death.
These countries include: China, North Korea, Belarus, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Iraq, Yemen, Iran and the United States.
A few other countries, such as India and Thailand, only carry out an execution on average of once or twice per decade.
Several other countries, such as Papua New Guinea, have not carried out an execution in almost a century, and there is no sign that the death penalty will resume in the given future. The same is also true when it comes to countries such as South Korea (which has not executed anybody since 1997) that still have the death penalty in their law books, yet have an official moratorium prohibiting their executions.
And how did such countries respond to the abolition of the death penalty?
While there are some variations, countries that have abolished the death penalty tend to have more reasonable sentencing laws, and the conditions of incarceration tend to be far more humane than they would be in an average country where the death penalty is administered.
The United States is the last country in the Americas to still carry out the death penalty. A few countries, such as Cuba (which last executed someone in 2003) have retained capital punishment while also imposing a moratorium on it.
When Anders Bering Breivik carried out the Oslo Bombing - Utoya Island attacks, he was given a prison sentence of 21 years, which was the harshest sentence allowed in Norway at the time for terrorism resulting in loss of life. (Norway has since upgraded the maximum sentence to 30 years for similar future offences.)
Breivik is likely more dangerous than any other prisoner found in the modern United States. You would be hard-pressed to find anybody inside America's prisons who could come close to the level of security risk that Breivik possesses; a fact that even Breivik's own father has confirmed when he visited his son in prison after the massacre.
And yet Norway does not execute Breivik, nor does Norway feel the need to place Breivik in a degrading environment in order to satisfy some form of retributive vengeance on behalf of the state and/or victims.
Many family members of those slain by Breivik have clearly stated that even if Norway were to have a death penalty, they themselves would protest against it, because it would go against their beliefs that the state should not be executing and/or deliberately placing people in abysmal conditions in order to placate the victims and their relatives.
While the United States is not without such examples found amongst family members who request clemency on behalf of the condemned, they are far more anecdotal than would appear to be the case in mainland Europe, where the death penalty has been abolished in all countries, except for Belarus.
Personally, I believe there is a lot of social conditioning involved that has made a greater majority of its citizens believing that draconian punishments are the only way to maintain a functioning legal system. This is why other laws, such as the Third Strikes Law, which has gotten thousands of people locked up for life for "crimes" as simple as cheating on a driver's test or shoplifting a pair of socks while on probation or parole, was supported by the majority of voters when such laws were introduced in the 1990s, despite being regarded as a human rights violation in every other industrial country, where the need to impose severe criminal punishments is not as central as it is within the United States.
The evidence does not indicate that the death penalty saves more lives than it destroys, because the United States by far has the highest homicide rate of any industrial country in the world. Even its northern neighbour, Canada, has a homicide rate of only approximately one-third of that of the United States, and Canada does not have a death penalty, nor does it have sentencing laws that could be even remotely compared to the United States in terms of severity, as 25 years to life (used mostly for first degree murder) is the harshest sentence permitted under Canadian law.
Proponents of capital punishment may simply declare that the statistics are not important to them, and that what they really seek is for someone convicted of murder to be executed.
While they may be legally within their right to hold this opinion, the ethics behind it is far more discernible, and not in a positive way. Just because someone wants the state to carry out executions on those convicted of murder does not mean that the state should do so. We as a society should not be asking the state to play the role of assassin on our behalf, in the same way we would not want the state waging unjustified wars or introducing other legislation that is blatantly at odds with fundamental human rights.
The state should be held to a much higher level of both accountability and righteousness. The vast majority of Americans claim to be Christians, and I am sure they would agree that as Christians, they have all committed terrible deeds in their lives, even if such transgressions may not have been technically illegal from the perspective of the state. Nowhere in the New Testament can I find evidence that Jesus would have supported the use of capital punishment, nor any other legal sanctions that would be done for the sole purpose of inflicting pain on another.
In fact, Jesus even rebuked those who used the Old Testament as justification to stone adulterers or those caught working on the Sabbath. It was also in the New Testament where Jesus was seen spending more time helping the so-called criminals of society, while also chastising the Sanhedrin for their own hypocrisy.
The irony of Christians who support the death penalty becomes even more clear when we remember that Jesus was put to death by the very state that would wage wars that cost the lives of millions of people, in addition to the millions more who may be imprisoned or be economically ruined from the actions of the state. It is also the state that decides who will live or die in countries where the death penalty is still carried out.
In Belarus, the bodies of those executed are cremated and scattered in an undisclosed location as a way to deny a proper burial for both the executed, as well as their friends and family members, who may be lucky to even receive the prison uniform that their loved one may have worn on the day of their execution.
The United States practices a similar method as Belarus, where the dead are thrown in large prison cemeteries and the only markers found on their grave stone (if they receive one at all) is their prison number. Only a few states have recently abolished this practice and given the dead the dignity of having their real names, as opposed to being treated as a mere number even after death.
As any reasonably sound person can tell, the death penalty does not only negatively impact the person being executed, but also their friends and family who may end up suffering great emotional as well as physical trauma at the thought of their kin being murdered by the state. This is something that one who may still support capital punishment should be able to at least nod to, even if we are arguing from a purely secular point of view.
Thousands of people are still on death row in the United States, and the average time one awaits an execution is up to fifteen years. For some, this period of waiting is much longer than this. There have been cases in modern American history where someone actually spent far more of their lives on death row awaiting their inevitable demises than they did in the free world. Some death row inmates who committed a murder in the 1970s when they were a teenager or a young adult in their twenties were executed as recently as last year when they were now senior citizens and had spent nearly half a century living under conditions that would be seen as barbaric even in the eyes of more conservative-minded folks, if the people being subjected to such conditions were not death row inmates.
Effectively, they are given a life sentence where they are locked up for 23 hours a day with little to no access to exercise and hygiene, before being disgracefully murdered by the state. And during that time, it is not just the person on death row, but the ones who may have had a direct or indirect attachment to that person who also have to grieve, not knowing what is going to happen to them or whether or not they will ever be able to get their death sentences commuted before their death warrant gets signed.
With the cruelty of capital punishment, the actual death of the condemned is no doubt the most reassuring relief that many of their relatives and friends can hope for, as their fate is now officially sealed, and the suffering of the condemned is now over, whether or not one believes in an afterlife.
Nonetheless, this is not how a proper society should view the killing of others through legal purposes, as the death penalty is still legalised murder in the same way that abortion or killing in times of war are. No matter what someone may have done to get them placed on death row in a country where the death penalty is still carried out, it must also be remembered that, like you and me, they also had a story and a history before going on death row.
And out of all the things they may have done in their lifetime, it is usually a single act that ends up getting them put there. While the counter argument would be that the vast majority of people never take a life, it should also be pointed out that to some degree, nearly everyone has participated in the killing of others, whether they want to admit it or not.
For instance, most Americans supported the War in Iraq when George W. Bush called for the invasion in 2003, knowing that many people were going to be killed as a result. Soldiers would have killed people in the war, and the dead who were killed in Iraq are just as dead and missed by their families as the people who are killed by someone in a peacetime setting back home.
Nobody should be able to judge anyone to the point where we decide who should be killed or be placed in deliberately miserable conditions as a form of societal revenge. Can we honestly tell ourselves that if we had been born in a different time or place that we would be the same people as we are today?
Someone who makes a living as a computer engineer would not have been working such a job in medieval times, and thus it is likely that the environment they would have been subjected to in medieval times would have impacted the way they think. This is equally explainable when it comes to Americans who believe that mass incarceration and the death penalty is a necessity, because their leaders for multiple generations have told them that it is a necessity.
The same does not hold true when it comes to countries that have a history of being more progressive in regards to coming up with a more fair and humane approach to the legal system. The United States has the potential to exclude itself from being deluded into thinking it is the exception to that rule.
Lastly, I also want to mention that there were hundreds of cases of death row inmates who proved to be a real positive influence for the inmates and even staff who were within their presence. Before their executions, some of these death row inmates became authors, teachers and self-learners who undoubtedly had the potential to not only better their own lives, even while living through a precarious time in their lives, but also for those within and outside the prison system.
To execute someone who may have helped turn the lives of others in a positive way is yet another extreme example of selfishness that the United States as well as several other countries with an active death penalty are guilty of. While keeping such prisoners alive, and possibly even freeing those who have been genuinely rehabilitated, does not bring the ones who were dead back to life, neither does executing them change that reality.
The person who was killed is already dead.
Nothing can change that.
The person who has yet to be executed does not need to be executed if we refuse to allow them to be executed.
If I were someone who was slain, and the person who killed me used their negative experience to turn that into a positive, I would much rather that person go free and become a productive member of society while spreading their new positive influences to others, rather than letting such potential go to waste, even though I would still be dead, nonetheless.
The state may have the legal power to decide whether or not something is legal or illegal, but the state will never be able to achieve a monopoly in dictating what is right and wrong.