An Essay By Al C.
Turning The Tide On The Death Penalty
The Death Penalty is the most totalitarian of punishments. An execution is a proclamation by the State that its judgment is infallible and that is has the power and the right not merely to punish a crime, but to destroy - completely and forever - a human life.
Because this power of life and death is so awesome and the act of killing so irrevocable, it is hardly surprising that throughout history those who have ruled by terror and fear have always fervently embraced the Death Penalty.
It is not surprising that States which use this power today to kill legally are often the same States which violate other human rights illegally.
It is not surprising that the struggle to abolish the Death Penalty has been closely linked to the struggle for all human rights and that recently we have seen the examples of countries where the elimination of tyranny has been followed by the elimination of the gallows and the firing squad.
It is not surprising that there is such a strong correlation between societies with political freedoms and societies which have abolished the Death Penalty.
What is surprising is that the United States remains one of the few developed Democratic societies where the State kills prisoners. It is a country with strong traditions of respect for individual rights, but where there are currently over 3,000 individuals housed in death rows who are waiting to be hanged, gassed, poisoned or shot to death. It is a country with a rule of law whose higher court has said that it is allowable to execute the retarded or those who are under 18 years of age. It is a country where moves are under way to shorten or eliminate the appeals process, which, if successful, would endure the killing of many of the prisoners who are now regularly discovered to have been wrongfully convicted or sentenced to death.
Those in the United States working to stop official killings have had to confront ugly truths and ask disturbing questions. Why do our fellow citizens cling to and clamour for a practice which people in a growing number of countries reject as useless, inhuman and intolerable?
How can people be in favor of human rights, be against torture in all cases, be genuinely shocked to learn about countries where the State attaches wires to some prisoners and applies electricity until those prisoners are in terrible pain, and yet find it both acceptable and desirable in their own country? Where States like Florida put wires on prisoners and then turn on the electricity so high that those prisoners are literally fried to death? Or like California where they drop pellets of gas which strangle prisoners, taking their breaths until the veins under their very skin burst.
We are forced to ask not just why governments want to kill, but why so many people want the government to kill? The arguments used in the United States to defend the legal cruelty of the Death Penalty are no different from the arguments used privately in other countries to defend the illegal cruelty of torture or political imprisonment. People no longer waste time trying to deny the cruelty of killing someone. Instead, they attempt to justify that cruelty with arguments that have forever been used to justify the violation of human rights.
In understanding the real reasons why people loudly call for executions, we begin to understand why people in other countries silently tolerate or support torture or political imprisonment.
It is argued that the Death Penalty may be cruel, but it is necessary at least for the time being to protect society. We inflict cruelty on the individual for the good of everyone else. We kill prisoners convicted of killing so that the rest will be less likely to be killed, even though Life Without Possibility of Parole would provide the same protection. It is recognized even by advocates of the Death Penalty that the Penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime. Instead, they urge retribution.
Simply put, it is the argument that people should be killed because they deserve to die, and we want to see them die. They deserve to die for acts they have committed which have removed them from the human race. And once outside the human race they can no longer claim to be protected by human rights. If we accept that there are people who can deserve to die because of acts they have committed, how can we reject the notion that there are people who deserve to be tortured or imprisoned without trial because of acts they have committed? It is a notion that goes against the very basis of human rights.
Retribution as the basis for the Death Penalty demands not only people who deserve to die, but a criminal justice system which can fairly and accurately determine who those people are. A system which kills a few people while allowing others who have committed the same or worse crimes to live or go free is not a system of retribution, but of human sacrifice.
Even worse, it is a system that by mistake can kill those who have committed no crime at all. The evidence is clear. There are about 25,000 murders in the United States every year, some 200 people are chosen to die for this. Since 1900, 23 cases of known innocent people were put to death. (Ed: "In Spite of Innocence" by Michael Radelet now cites over 40)
Virtually all those on death row today are poor, mentally ill, or retarded or belong to minority races, and those who are executed are often all of the aforementioned. We kill selectively and primarily those who are already seen as less than equal to the majority of the population. It becomes much easier for the majority to fear, hate and eventually to kill those with whom it can less easily identify. This is the challenge posed by the Death Penalty.
Can we rise above fear, anger and our hatreds and prejudices and begin to find ways to deal with the violence of our fellow human beings other than simply by more violence? Despite all the violence and social problems, abolition is clearly where our world and our race is now moving. I remain confident that this struggle will be won; I only hope that in my lifetime I will be able to live in a country and in a world where never again will the extermination of human beings by a government be seen as acceptable for any reason.
Al Cunningham, California