Death penalty ugly, vindictive

Elton Wong

Somehow, any politician who supports the death penalty is able to call himself “tough on crime.” It wasn’t always this way.

In colonial America, just supporting the death penalty made you a weenie. To be truly tough on crime, you had to support drawing and quartering. The definition varied depending on where you were in New England. All forms involved dismemberment and decapitation. Some forms involved disembowelment. Sometimes an individual’s entrails would be burned or trod upon. This was all state-sanctioned.

In today’s politically correct climate, the worst you can do to someone is kill them using lethal injection or the electric chair.

Why are so many people enamored with the death penalty? George W. Bush has made a bragging point of the 145-plus prisoners killed in Texas since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1982. People are choosing their candidates based on whether or not they want criminals to die or be locked up for life.

Anyone with half a brain knows that any court is inevitably going to mess up once in a while. Public defenders are often incompetent, and most of the accused cannot afford anything else.

In the past month, Illinois overturned a conviction of a death row inmate for the 13th time. In that state, 33 inmates on death row were defended by lawyers who have since been disbarred or suspended. They had no chance at justice. This is scary stuff.

You’d figure that politicians would at least try to minimize the killing of innocent people. You would have figured wrong. Last year, George W. “lethal injection” Bush vetoed a unanimously approved bill from the Texas legislature that would have allocated more money to public defenders in state courts.

You’d think this sort of bill would make sense in a state notorious for inept and underfunded public defense lawyers, but I guess Bush was too busy being a compassionate conservative to care, so he had to go out of his way to veto the bill.

Or maybe he was too busy denying clemency hearings to the inmates already on death row. Or maybe he was too busy citing Jesus as his favorite philosopher. But I digress.

You can’t help but perceive the ugly vindictiveness that hangs around supporters of the death penalty.

This vindictiveness tastes bitter, feels dank, and smells like the postcoital sweat from in-between Ron Jeremy’s buttocks.

Ignoring that I plagiarized that last line from “Maxim” magazine, the fact remains that the death penalty doesn’t help anyone. It is not a deterrent on crime; it does not relieve the suffering of the victims or their families.

It is expensive and exceedingly error prone. Why would anyone be willing, never mind eager, to kill innocents in order to feel the barbaric satisfaction of killing the guilty along with them?

If one really hated crime, wouldn’t it make more sense to work on the causes of crime (poverty, lack of education etc.) rather than to gleefully and self-righteously punish those who are products of these causes?

It turns out that ugly vindictiveness is a defining American characteristic. Many conservatives who support the death penalty see American morality as an extension of the Puritan ideals. “Traditional values” is the buzzword to remember here.

Let us examine the work of Jonathan Edwards, the most well-respected and influential of the Puritan preachers or philosophers. Edwards preached:

“The seeing of the calamities of others tends to heighten the sense of our own enjoyments. When the saints in glory, therefore, shall see the doleful state of the dammed, how will this heighten the sense of blessedness of their own state … When they see how miserable others of their fellow-creatures are … when they shall see the smoke of their torment … and hear their dolorous shrieks and cries, and consider that they in the mean time are in the most blissful state, and shall surely be in it to all eternity; how they will rejoice … because they will know then that God has no love to them, no pity for them.”

Basically, Edwards said that it was good to feel happiness in the suffering of others. He then invoked God to justify his moral failure. This is a lesson learned well by the “moral majority” of America today.

The goal is not to help people but rather to hurt them when they do wrong and then to feel masturbatorially self-righteous about it. It seems that for some people, self-righteousness takes the place of sex.

Vindictiveness is the mentality of the mob, of thieves and murderers, of arcane codes of conduct. It is a concept that has no place in justice. Capital punishment is the embodiment of vindictiveness, no matter how many rationalizing contortions defenders put it through.

Punishment is of course necessary to deter crime and to establish law and order. But punishment must only be done to protect society and to reform the wrongdoer. Inflicting suffering or death for the sake of suffering or death is wrong and shameful. We cannot judge others if we ourselves are guilty of their crime. In the words of Socrates in The Republic:

“Then it is not the work of a just man to harm either a friend or anyone else . . . but of his opposite, the unjust man. . . if someone asserts that it’s just to give what is owed to each man — and he understands by this that harm is owed to enemies by the just man and help to friends — the man who said it was not wise … For it has become apparent to us that it is never just to harm anyone.”

Elton Wong is a junior in biology and philosophy from Ames.