August 21, 2018
The pope’s recent declaration that the death penalty is “inadmissible” reflects received wisdom today. Capital punishment, conventional thinking goes, not only fails to deter crime, but puts innocent people to death; inflicts “cruel and unusual punishment”; and, as the pope explained, “attacks the dignity of the person.”
Whatever the merits of these arguments, the case for capital punishment transcends them. But before examining it, let us consider the points above.
First, does the death penalty deter crime? While scholars disagree about the evidence, common sense would have us believe it does. As Ernest van den Haag hypothesized, imagine that those who murder on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday receive life imprisonment, while those who murder on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday receive the death penalty. On which days are murders more likely to be committed? This thought experiment ought to give us pause when we are told that cost is irrelevant to those who pay it, which is in effect what is being said by those who insist capital punishment has zero impact on deterrence.
Second, does capital punishment put innocent people to death? Any honest person must admit there is no way to completely eliminate the risk that a non-guilty person may be executed. That it has happened is morally horrific. However, that merely reinforces why the death penalty should be reserved for the worst murderers, and only where evidence is incontrovertible. In other words, it should be used for cases like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy.
Moreover, abolishing the death penalty would result in more innocent people being killed than if it were kept. It is far from uncommon for murderers to continue murdering both while in prison and upon release, yet it is quite rare that an innocent person is mistakenly executed. Thus, the unfortunate choice we face is whether more innocents are killed by eliminating the death penalty or fewer are killed by keeping it.
On a related note, it is often asked how one can be pro-life but also pro-death penalty. The answer is that the term “pro-life” means pro-innocent-life. By taking innocent life, the murderer forfeits the right to his own. Thus, there is no inconsistency in being anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment.
Third, does the death penalty inflict “cruel and unusual punishment”? The argument here often retreats to pointing out the disparities between the races afflicted by the death penalty. Because blacks are disproportionately executed, this argument maintains, capital punishment is ipso facto racist and must be abolished. But this thinking is highly dubious. First, men are vastly disproportionately executed compared to women, so is capital punishment also “sexist”? Surely not. It so happens that men commit the vast majority of crime worthy of the death sentence. It also so happens that the men who commit the most serious crimes are disproportionately
black. As a study by the nonpartisan RAND Corporation concluded, the death penalty is decided by the gravity of the crime, not by race:
When we look at the raw data and make no adjustment for case characteristics, we find the large race effects noted previously -- namely, a decision to seek the death penalty is more likely to occur when the defendants are white and when the victims are white. However, these disparities disappear when the data coded from the AG’s case files are used to adjust for the heinousness of the crime. (emphasis added)
Fourth, many believe, as the pope says, that capital punishment is an “attack the dignity of the person.” Why? Because it diminishes the value of the human being. As one article put it, “Reliance on the death penalty diminishes us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life.”
On the contrary, the death penalty elevates the human being. What better reflects the value we place on human life than the punishment we apply for extinguishing it? It is precisely our disapproval of capital punishment that reflects a softening attitude toward the evil of murder and a cheapening of human life. As A.L Goodhart put it, “Retribution in punishment is an expression of the community’s disapproval of crime, and if this retribution is not given recognition then the disapproval of crime may also disappear. A community which is too ready to forgive the wrongdoer may end up condoning the crime.”
That is why, even if every other argument against it were valid, justice alone demands that we keep the death penalty. For it is the only just and compassionate response to murder. As Dennis Prager points out, “nearly all people would deem it terribly unfair if I were to steal my neighbor’s car and be allowed to go on using my car while he is deprived of his. Why does this fundamental tenet of fairness not hold true concerning life? On grounds of justice and fairness alone, why should I be allowed to keep my life after I have deliberately taken someone else’s away?”
Consider Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of 9/11 and the executioner who sawed the head off of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl on camera. He's been kept alive for 17 years after he orchestrated the murder of nearly three thousand Americans. While the victims’ families suffer, he's been held at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners enjoy watching movies and news programs, and often relax in cushy recliners while doing so. Furthermore, he’s been given access to platforms that have allowed him to arrogantly taunt his victims and their families. “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan,” he bragged to a reporter. “For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head."
Ask yourself, does KSM deserve to be alive? What about his victims? Keeping him alive out of a misplaced sense of compassion inflicts cruelty on his victims and their families. As Talmudic wisdom says, being kind to the cruel ends up being cruel to the kind.
Furthermore, failure to enact justice diminishes goodness. Conversely, as Walter Berns explained, “Punishment... makes the criminal unhappy and it makes the law-abiding person happy. It rewards the law-abiding by satisfying the anger he feels at the sight of a crime. It rewards, and by rewarding, teaches law-abidingness.” In other words, achieving justice rewards goodness.
But indifference to justice is apathy toward goodness, and a society unwilling to execute those who deserve it shows disrespect to the latter and disregard for the former. Therefore, for the sake of a good and just society, capital punishment ought to be maintained.
David formerly worked at a public policy institution and is currently a freelance writer. He’s written for The Federalist, The Hill, The Washington Times, The Daily Caller and other outlets. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DWeinberger03.