Capital Punishment: A Capital Offense in Today's Easily Misguided World
The debate surrounding the usage of capital punishment in the modern era has raged for generations. While there have always been arguments for the positive aspects of capital punishment, today's world is less optimistic about the death penalty -- and with good reason. The death penalty affects more than just the convicted, it affects all of society. In order to show why capital punishment should be avoided, it is helpful to draw lessons from history, literature, and psychology.
The historical case for capital punishment has long been made. Capital punishment has existed in every major society in one form or another throughout the centuries. As Michael Kronenwetter states, in every society "all punishment is based on the same simple proposition: There must be a penalty for wrongdoing" (1). Kronenwetter is correct in asserting as much: all major societies have had some sense of justice and retribution, from Hammurabi's Code to the 10 Commandments of the Hebrews to today's ideology of political correctness. If one violates a tenet of a socially accepted belief, punishment is expected. But the question that Kronenwetter raises is this: how should the penalty for wrongdoing be expressed? Kronenwetter discusses the historical side of capital punishment, acknowledging that even those communities, particularly religious, noted for adopting creeds that spurn the "eye for an eye" doctrine and teach adherents to "turn the other cheek" have throughout the centuries accepted the death penalty as a necessity. In fact, Kronenwetter admits that throughout history capital punishment has had its pragmatic side: the death penalty was often utilized in an effort to protect the State, or society, from harmful persons who would otherwise put innocent persons at risk. This argument is supported by Jewish and Christian texts, from David in the Psalms ("In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord") to Thomas Aquinas, the medieval scholastic, who taught that the death penalty could work as a deterrent.
However, modern societies have to some extent shied away from the usage of the death penalty, at least in more recent generations. Francis Bacon, writing in the 16th century, after England's break with the Church, was already promoting a new vision for mankind that was based on philanthropy. Bacon helped to usher in an era of humanism and reform. Indeed, beginning with 19th century's leading intellectuals and social activists in England, a new approach towards capital punishment was put forward. Men like Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray abhorred the institution. Thackeray, who witnessed first-hand the execution of a criminal, recorded in his journal his profound disturbance: "I came away from Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done…I pray to Almighty God to cause this disgraceful sin to pass from among us, and to cleanse our land of blood" (Diamond 157). Thackeray's dismay at the execution he saw performed by the State is expressed in strong, condemning words: he points to God as a higher power, Author of a greater law than that of England -- and he identifies capital punishment as a sin against humanity. For Thackeray, it made no sense to kill a man for his crimes. It was tantamount to state-sponsored murder, as Thackeray points out.
Dickens shared Thackeray's disgust. He had no faith in the English courts. The characters he creates in his novels are to be judged not according to any judicial system but rather to a higher, spiritual law. This is evident in works like Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, both of which concern the execution of the law and the role of mercy. The bloody excesses of the French Revolution, depicted in the latter novel, reveal a society gone mad with bloodlust and the execution of political prisoners. Capital punishment was too quickly exercised by judicial systems too easily corrupted. Modern judicial systems, Dickens suggested, were not up to the challenge of delivering fair verdicts and thus should especially abstain from delivering death sentences.
By the mid-1900s, the social consciousness of the U.S. received a rude awakening thanks to two major works: Truman Capotes' In Cold Blood and Richard Wright's Native Son. In Cold Blood was the true story reported by Capote of the trial of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, accused and ultimately convicted of murdering the Clutter family. Capote got to know the murderers and depicted every facet of the trial, as well as all of its psychological dimensions. One of the arguments that a reporter makes during the course of the trial is that, yes, the murderers acted in cold-blood, but the State, if it hangs them, will also be acting in cold-blood. In other words, where does the cycle of killing end and a new cycle of mercy begin? Reverend Post makes a similar point, according to Capote: "Well,' he said, passing around a snapshot reproduction of Perry Smith's portrait of Jesus, 'any man who could paint this picture can't be one hundred percent bad. All the same it's hard to know what to do. Capital punishment is no answer: it doesn't give the sinner time enough to come to God. Sometimes I despair'" (Capote 306). Reverend Post's point is that any man who can sit and contemplate the face of Jesus and portray it artistically, as the convicted killer Perry did, still shows that he is a human being with a mind capable of understanding the higher truths. Whatever motivated him to kill is only one part of the man -- and clearly, judging from the painting, there is another part which seeks salvation. Post, like Thackeray, is disturbed that such a man should be condemned to death so cruelly and coldly. Perry may deserve death under the old code of Hammurabi, but the code of Christ calls for mercy. Shouldn't a Christian nation practice what it preaches? Such is Post's argument.
Capote depicts small town America suddenly forced to face a tough question: is it morally right to kill a human being who has taken the life of another? Is it Christian? Although the Roman Catholic Church had accepted capital punishment as lawful when Christendom flourished, Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae went so far as to question whether the death penalty were any longer necessary to "defend society" (John Paul II). Although John Paul II did not outright condemn capital punishment and did pronounce that it still had its uses, however few they were, he did suggest that it was time to put this method of justice behind us. Society had gotten too far away from the message of Christ to pass such major and consequential judgments on others. Perhaps if the world were more Christian, the pontiff seemed to suggest
That is the gist of the argument made by Wright in Native Son, too. In that novel, an African-American named Bigger Thomas murders an upper class white woman. He is tried, convicted and sentenced to death -- but his attorney argues that the death penalty should not be used because it simply perpetuates the bloodlust. In short, its effectiveness as a deterrent in the modern era is questionable at best. A new example should be given to all: one of mercy.
It is a valid point -- that mercy should be shown when possible. The book Welcome to Hell: Letters and Writings from Death Row reveals another side to the minds of those connected to violent criminals. One inmate on Death Row writes: "There was a time when I thought that there should be a Death Penalty for certain crimes, such as rape and murder and child abuse and murder…but the Death Penalty in this country and many others is politically and economically motivated, there is also the fact that the vast majority of the population just doesn't care, until it's their loved ones in this (having a death sentence) situation" (Arriens 5). This inmate on Death Row echoes the argument of John Paul II by showing how the judicial system can be corrupted and how sentences of death can be given without serious reflection. This inmate suspects that most people long for the code of Hammurabi and really hold it in their hearts, only realizing the bitterness of it when it is one of their own loved ones who is sentenced to death by an inhuman law. Plus, the argument that capital punishment is not free from outside political/economic pressures is a powerful one -- and when coupled with the thought that persons who defend the death penalty lack a degree of compassion one might well wonder whether it is enough to stay all executions.
The psychology of all concerned in cases of capital punishment shows that the question of capital punishment needs some reassessing. Paula Mitchell notes that issuing the death penalty takes an "enormous psychological toll…on jurors, Justices, Governors,…