Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Death Penalty

Whether the death penalty should be used, and for what offences, is often an emotional issue on both sides of the debate. There are those who are adamant that some people should not be allowed to remain alive because they have done something so despicable that they are considered worthless. Adolph Hitler is almost universally placed in that group. Others contend that all lives have value and the rare, exceptional case like Hitler does not justify killing as a punishment since humans are prone to making mistakes and may kill an innocent person. This has, in fact, happened on more than one occasion.

There is undoubtedly an undercurrent of a desire for retributive punishment within our society, aimed at those who break the rules. When some damage is caused to someone by a lawbreaker, the purpose of any resulting action often appears to be punitive rather than just restorative. That is, instead of making the victim whole by reversing the damage, a penalty above and beyond that of simple restoration is imposed. It is argued that the punitive imposition acts both as a deterrent to stop the individual from repeating the actions and a warning to others who may contemplate doing the same. We could also point out that it gives some emotional satisfaction to others as they see the perpetrator being mistreated in turn. As the saying has it, “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold”.

The purpose behind justice is to preserve a cohesive and law abiding society so that members may live together in harmony. To this end the discipline imposed for lawbreaking is to emphasise that the acts done are not acceptable and will not be tolerated. The intent is to get the lawbreakers attention and ensure they fully comprehend what they have done wrong. Action taken may also include a prison sentence or probation to allow enough time for counselling and retraining so the lawbreaker has an opportunity to reflect and change their ways. That is the idealised intent, of course. In practice some lawbreakers see the punishment as part of the price to pay for their lifestyle and is the cost of doing an illegal, but highly lucrative, business. It is, however, successful in a large number of cases and there are thousands of people who have taken a short, sharp lesson to heart and never reoffended. Unfortunately, the failures get more publicity, particularly if spectacular, while the quiet successes are all but ignored.

At one time the death penalty was imposed for many offences, sometimes quite innocuous ones. Over the centuries these have been whittled away until it was reserved only for those convicted of premeditated murder. Today, we do not have the death penalty in Canada, although some states in the US still execute murderers.

One of the main arguments against the death penalty is that it makes the state no better than the criminal. Deliberate killing in retribution for deliberate killing, tit for tat, an eye for an eye, has the taint of revenge about it rather than justice. There also has to be an executioner to carry out the killing, and there is rarely any consideration for the affect on him, for it is usually a man. One has to question what kind of man would volunteer to deliberately plan and kill another human, particularly if he was required to do so on more than one occasion. What motivates him? I certainly would not be able to do it.

Even those who have killed others can change their perspective. They certainly have to live the rest of their lives knowing that they have broken one of our strictest taboos, with the distinct possibility that it may lead to severe emotional problems for them in later years. Taking another’s life is portrayed on television and film as a casual affair, but it is anything but that. In real life the affects on the killer may be quite profound. Due to that, in many cases they may become valued members of society once again after a period of psychiatric counselling.

For those who do not respond to counselling, perhaps an extended period in prison is the best way to protect others from their behaviour but, surely, killing in retribution taints us all.

Notwithstanding that, some jurisdictions do carry out the death penalty. Usually, this is justified on the basis that it is necessary to ensure the killer does not kill again and the necessity to keep citizens safe. Ending the killer’s life ensures this, at least in part, since others may still cause a lack of safety. Some areas of the world apply the death penalty for religious reasons, because a holy book from centuries or millennia ago stipulates it as the penalty, or because a long standing, centuries old tradition of executions has set the precedent. Revenge or retribution is rarely given as a reason, since doing so would imply that those carrying out the execution were looking forward to and glorifying the execution, but it is there, nonetheless.

Let’s presume, however, that keeping society safe is actually the aim. In that case, a quick execution should be paramount on the basis that the sooner it is done, the sooner the protection is there. All too often, though, execution is drawn out and the lead up to it is full of delays and rituals. Partially at least, I suspect these are in place to emphasise to those involved that it is a formal, judicial process and they do not bear any personal responsibility for the execution of another person.

Modern hanging kills the victim by using a slack rope around the neck which jerks the victim’s spinal column when they fall and it tightens, breaking their neck and causing instantaneous death. Strangulation hanging suspends the victim with a rope around the neck, causing death by slow suffocation and crushing of the trachea.

The actual execution process should be as painless and rapid as possible. The fact is that in the past some intensely barbaric practices have been used: practices like hanging in chains; strangulation hanging; hanging, drawing and quartering; stoning; garrotting and burning alive. Fortunately those are no longer the norm in civilised societies. Today the most common, at least in western societies, are broken neck hanging, electrocution and poisoning, usually by injection.

One would have thought that the last of those, the poisoning by injection, would be the most humane. Obviously, drugs like heroin and morphine could be used to subdue the victim, then rapidly increased to a lethal dose until they are dead. Addicts do this accidentally quite often. So surely, with the war on drugs, there can be no shortage of these poisons. Yet some botched poisoning executions in the USA are blamed on commercial drug suppliers failing to provide appropriate materials to the prisons where the execution is to take place so that some other, less effective, procedure has to be use.

This is obviously self-serving nonsense. The state is responsible for the execution and the state has legislating authority so the state can compel corporations to provide appropriate materials. There is no excuse for a botched execution since all that is required to stop it is the will to do so. Perhaps that is what is missing. Perhaps there is still an element of punitive revenge in the minds of the executioners. Perhaps they believe that execution should be traumatic for the victim and that a simple, passive passing does not fill that need for retribution.

Such executions demean us.


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