The real reason so many support capital punishment is that they take pleasure inflicting pain on those they hate. Of course, they aren’t likely to admit this, but it’s very easy to prove that it is so. Throughout most of history punishments were vindictive. As recently as the 1700s virtually every crime–from cutting down a neighbor’s tree, to stealing his chickens, to shooting the king’s deer–was punishable solely by death. Our ancestors were more honest with themselves and didn’t hide their motives so well. So-called modern man thinks himself better than this and cloaks his real feelings with terms like “deterrence,” retribution,” and “justice.”
Prior to the industrial revolution good folks not only used the death penalty for most offenses, but inflicted it in the most terrible ways–flaying, crucifixion, drawing and quartering, drowning, stoning, and starving to death just to name a few.
Today such horrific physical tortures are no longer used–at least not in the west. But they have been replaced by what may be a far crueler form of mental torment. The condemned is notified of the exact time and manner of his death and locked in a cell. There he has nothing to occupy his mind save counting down the months, weeks, and days that remain of his life.
As philosopher Albert Camus eloquently put it: “But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”
Judges and legislators today deny they punishment from vengeance. They confess to “indignation” for the criminal, but insist it is “righteous indignation.” But the word “righteous” is no more than a confession of hypocrisy. Hatred is hatred, and calling it righteous changes nothing. It is impossible to inflict pain and torture upon someone without hating them.
Most contemporary champions of the death penalty defend the practice by insisting that killing criminals deters crime. But there is absolutely no evidence this is true. States without the death penalty have lower murder rates than states with it. The difference isn’t much, but it plainly refutes the claim that killing criminals keeps others from committing crime.
Are people kept from killing because they are afraid to die? Every murderer–except those who kill in the heat of passion–plan their escape. They intend not to be caught, and often they are not. So the fear of execution cannot deter them. In crimes of passion the heat of moment extinguishes any thought of capture or punishment. So, again, fear of death is not a deterrent.
The extend to which individuals are responsible for their behavior will always be a subject of debate. What is clear is that most men who kill are very unstable and easily moved by outside pressure. Crime, poverty, and ignorance go together. When the world understands this and sees that every act is preceded by a cause or series of causes, it will seek to remove the causes of crime, and poverty, and ignorance. Then, and only then, will the great mass of human maladjustments vanish from the world.