Capital Punishment

The cover story in the Washington Post Magazine of Oct. 22, 2000, illustrates the following familiar and troubling points:
1) Legal systems in the United States, and often “counselors,” encourage and do little or nothing to oppose the idea that those suffering due to crimes will feel better if they hate and inflict suffering.

2) This idea is incorrect.

3) The media refuses to direct the conversation of this topic to what social scientists overwhelmingly agree would be the most effective, least expensive, and most beneficial means of preventing many of these horrible crimes in the first place, namely eliminating poverty and improving the quality of life in the United States.

Our governments’ job in this article is seen as disguising revenge as “justice.” Yet our governments claim to be acting on behalf of specific victims, not all of society, and the victims – as quoted in the article – profess an undisguised desire for revenge.

What if every tenured philosophy professor in the country declared that capital punishment, at least under certain imaginary circumstances involving certainty of guilt and some specific ratio of nurture to nature in the causes of the crime, satisfied some supernatural need? Would this be enough to justify us in encouraging crime victims to experience the horrible suffering involved in hating? And would it outweigh the advice of Jesus Christ, restated so eloquently by Martin Luther King Jr., to love enemies and forgive wrongs?

Why must I, as an atheist, be condemned to recognize the wisdom of Christ and the suffering caused by ignoring him, while so many around me are loudly urging me to recognize him as a god? If he had known that becoming divine would destine him to be hypocritically ignored, Christ would probably not have encouraged that belief.

Forgiving is difficult. Forgiving the murder of a loved one is something I have personally never had to attempt. But many have done it and say they are better for it. Those who hate for 10 years, as did one victim in this article, and then expect an act of cruelty to end their suffering, are always disappointed. And this is not because state murder has become so sanitary and regimented. These victims could be permitted to personally torture their personal convicts for days and they would still be suffering. They would suffer more, in fact, and they would be more encouraged to believe that cruelty and violence are acceptable behavior.

Would it be “paternalistic” for a government to encourage victims to forgive? No. It might be self-serving since our governments’ short-sighted and wealth-driven policies are to blame for many crimes. But it would be no more paternalistic than encouraging hatred and vengeance. It is not “natural” and eternally “normal” for a victim to hate for a decade. That is one behavior among many possible ones, and it exists only where a culture encourages it.

Nonviolent protesters in this country 35 years ago succeeded by loving those who attacked them. They followed their leaders’ advice in this regard and benefited greatly from it. Can you imagine how far the civil rights movement would have gone if its goal had been to allow a tired woman to personally punish a bus driver who wanted her to sit in a different seat? That is exactly how far we have gotten in this most and least Christian of nations in the matter of preventing and responding to crime.

How do we go on pretending that revenge will make victims feel better? There is at least as much evidence disproving this idea as there is disproving the idea that state murder can deter private murder. There has been overwhelming evidence against both of these notions for years, but only the latter seems to have inexplicably gained sudden acceptance.

I have more than once read philosophers’ attacks on what they conceive of as the ethical theory of utilitarianism (roughly, the idea of doing what produces the most happiness and least suffering) in which they ask, “How can this theory accomplish the necessary task (in philosophy the theories conveniently come after their conclusions) of condemning Nazism when the Nazis may have gotten more happiness out of hating the Jews than the Jews got suffering out of being killed?” One of the infinite number of problems with this question is that hatred is not happy. Why don’t we know that yet?

The Post’s story does a good job of describing the situation, but does not question it, and – more importantly – does not address the matter of reducing crime. Other countries condemn the U.S. for its horrible treatment of criminals and wrongly convicted noncriminals, and Americans respond that they would do the same if faced with the crime we experience. But why do we experience such higher rates of crime? The United States is, in inhuman financial terms, the richest country on the planet. We can afford to take the steps widely known to reduce crime. A recent study by Ellen Houston of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., confirms (once again) that the rate of employment and the wages for that employment are the strongest predictors of crime rates.

Crime has dropped slightly in this country, even as our investment in prisons skyrockets, and some of this may be due to all the long prison sentences. But most of it is almost certainly due to low unemployment. If we could raise the minimum wage to even the level it was at 30 years ago, we would surely see a bigger drop in crime. If we could stem the tide of sprawl and ghettoization, we would see even greater improvements. Let’s direct any unavoidable anger into energy directed at creating better laws. I think we’ll find this far more satisfying than injecting people with poison and watching them writhe in agony.

Letter on Capital Punishment
Culpeper News
To the editor:

A legislative committee in Richmond is considering a moratorium on the death penalty, a step encouraged in large part by the false conviction of Earl Washington in Culpeper, who was nearly killed by our government for something he did not do. Others in Virginia have been executed whose guilt was very much in doubt. The state has refused to test evidence that would show whether or not it made a mistake. When we have reached the point of refusing information because we don’t want to face the horror of what we are doing, a time-out is in order.

Since a growing portion of the public is finally admitting that every single study ever done has shown the death penalty not to be a deterrent to crime; since violent crime rates nationwide — according to the FBI — have declined, but have increased in the death penalty capital: Texas; and since no one disputes that we could fight crime much more effectively and less expensively by fighting poverty; there will come a time when we have to choose which is more important to us, having less crime or having more executions and prisons.

For now, the least we can do is take a breather. Culpeperites are in a unique position to urge Gov. Gilmore to follow the lead of the Republican governor of Illinois and call a moratorium.

David Swanson

Stop the Death Penalty
30 Dec. 2000

To the Editor:

Movement to abolish or at least temporarily halt the death penalty in Virginia is rapidly gaining steam, and rightly so. Not only has the state of Virginia killed convicts of very dubious guilt and then destroyed the evidence so that it could not be tested. But it has this year finally pardoned a man (Earl Washington Jr.) whose innocence was clear for 17 years and who came within a week of being killed anyway. One of the eight men that Virginia did kill this year was killed on the basis of evidence that vanished, reappeared, and was supposedly tested — all within about a week, while Earl Washington waited 8 months for his latest round of testing.

Add to the problem of killing innocent men the fact that overwhelming evidence continues to show that the death penalty may encourage crime but certainly doesn’t deter it (as a dwindling contingent of supporters continues to maintain in what must now be recognized as a preference for revenge over crime reduction). Either of these two points provides a strong case against this barbaric hate-thy-neighbor anachronism. Add the third argument that the death penalty is applied in a manner biased by race (of victim and defendant) and wealth (of defendant), and the decision should be an easy one (see a study posted at

There’s an even stronger fourth argument, however. The people of the state of Virginia (nominally a democracy) favor a moratorium. A Times-Dispatch poll this year found that 58 percent of Virginians want a moratorium and 91 percent want DNA testing for convicts who have biological evidence to test. A national poll by Peter Hart Research found that 64 percent of Americans want a moratorium and 89 percent want DNA testing. Just because we have now “elected” (I use the term loosely) a president known to the rest of the world as a mass executioner, does not mean we should have to engage in a monstrous practice that most of us want halted and numerous organizations of relatives of victims eloquently oppose.

Virginia Del. Frank Hargrove (R, Hanover) has promised to introduce a bill to abolish the death penalty. He should be applauded, and other delegates should be encouraged to support the measure. Death Penalty Awareness Day will take place in Richmond on Jan. 17 (call 888-567-8237 for information).

Currently on Virginia’s death row are: a man suffering from bipolar disorder, another with severe schizophrenia, another who was 15 at the time of his alleged crime, another with an IQ of 50, another (Earl Bramblett) with no serious evidence against him, and another (Bobby Swisher) whose lawyers bungled his case beyond the usual ludicrous standards.

Stop the killing!

David Swanson

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.