There is no more heinous or morally indefensible crime than capital punishment. Nor is there is any person, however monstrous, deserving of execution at the hands of the state. We may never know the motives behind the actions of many criminals, but we can fully grasp the culpability of the state. For it is the state, through its legal machinations, that calmly premeditates the murder of its own citizens.
How can this be considered punishment?
There is no corrective element, at all, just death and finality.
A society that is willing to intentionally kill one of its own people is a society that is willing to accept barbarism as it guiding principle. There’s no middle ground on capital punishment. When one offers their moral support to the practice, they are participating directly in the ritual murder of another human being.
Two days ago, Kenneth Boyd became the 1,000th prisoner to be put to death in the US since the death penalty was reinstated 30 years ago. His final words were, “God bless everyone in here.” Thus, Boyd’s death becomes little more than a grim milestone of America’s commitment to savagery over justice.
A recent Gallop poll indicates that 64% of Americans support the death penalty, down from 80% in 1994. “But the figure of 64% falls to just 50% when the alternative of life without parole is presented.” (Andrew Buncombe, “US turns against death penalty as 1000th prisoner is executed,” The Independent, December 3, 2005)
For years, anti-death penalty groups have disputed the evenhandedness of capital punishment, which is overwhelming directed at the poor and people of color. Now, with the widespread use of DNA a growing number of murder convictions have been overturned by new evidence. “There have also been 122 cases of prisoners on death row being shown to be innocent.” (Andrew Buncombe)
This has caused a shift in public attitudes towards capital punishment and many people are becoming more sensitized to its inherent unfairness. I believe that more people would reject the death penalty if the wording of polling questions were simply changed to reflect the real meaning of their support. Staunch death penalty advocates tend to rationalize their support in terms of the evil of particularly shocking crime. They see it as an appropriate payback for bad behavior.
But, that, in fact, is not the question. The real question is whether or not the state has the right to kill one of its own citizens. That is the only question that should concern us.
Our model of state power is not simply based on what may or may not be fair regarding the punishment for particular crimes. Rather, it is grounded on a larger principle that protects the society at large from the abuses of state power. If, for example, the question were raised in a survey “Does the state have the right to kill one of its citizens,” I believe we would find the exact opposite result from the earlier poll. This reflects the innate suspicion that people have of handing over too much power to government.
Again, the nature of the crime makes no difference; it is never within the purview of the state to kill a citizen. Never. That definitive act turns the whole system of representative government on its head. Our government is the offspring of theories that emerged during the Enlightenment; that governments are established as a compromise of one’s right to absolute freedom to meet the security needs of the individual. In exchange, the state becomes the guarantor of human and civil rights. This is what we call the social contract.
This model exposes the true origins of the state and suggests the parameters under which it may legitimately operate. And, although the state may be an expression of the public will, it is never more than a crude invention to assure one’s safety in a potentially threatening environment. Such a device has no authority beyond its limited powers to protect and provide for its people.
To allow the state the absolute power over life and death is to elevate its significance above those it is created to serve. Capital punishment is a form state worship; elevating the authority of government above the principles that legitimize its existence. It is the “cart before the horse”.
Whenever men are murdered by the state in the name of capital punishment, it is the state that is glorified; it is the state that is deified; it is the state that is victorious. And, it is the freedom of every individual that is sacrificed.
Mike Whitney lives in Washington state, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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