Monday, November 15, 2010

Why won't capital punishment go away?

I'm glad Ta-Nehisi follows this stuff. I think there are by now a number of examples where it seems clear that an innocent person was executed (David Grann's lovely, heartbreaking piece on Cameron Todd Willingham and the circumstances of his execution is something that everyone should read), and yet public opinion still overwhelmingly backs the death penalty, even though almost everyone surveyed admits that it's likely that someone innocent has been lost due to the practice. Capital punishment was one of the first areas where I rebelled from my evangelical conservative upbringing, and one of the causes that I am personally passionate about (though it's probably fallen into my second tier at this point). Capital punishment is an excellent example of man's hubris, the notion that people can somehow determine for sure that someone can never be rehabilitated, that we can really see into another person's soul (or, for my materialist friends, whatever term you wish to substitute in for the soul). There is, in my opinion, not really any satisfying argument in favor of the practice, though John Stuart Mill's comes close. But capital punishment has almost completely dropped out of sight as an issue in American life, and nobody even bothers to defend it on its own terms anymore.

There are a lot of reasons for this state of affairs. Crime has gone down dramatically since the early 1990s, but I don't think people have adjusted to the new reality in their minds. My personal experience growing up in suburbia is that it involves highly distorted (and self-glorifying) views of the realities of urban living, since why else did they move to the suburbs? And it cannot be denied that there is a sort of caveman justice to capital punishment that intuitively makes sense to people with certain assumptions. One of the key problems to anti-death penalty argumentation that I've come across as a death penalty opponent is that opponents tend to emphasize the poverty of the "deterrence" argument in favor of capital punishment. There is a major point to be made here, since the Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty for nearly two years with the Furman v. Georgia decision in the mid-1970s, and crime did not shoot up. Not only that, but the common sense rebuttal is compelling as well--one of the earliest episodes of The West Wing noticed that drug kingpins live every day under the threat of execution, so why would a more sanitary and drawn-out one threaten them at all? All of this is solid reasoning, but the problem is that it proves the wrong point. Nobody believes in capital punishment as a deterrent, as that's just the reasonable facade to make it seem a lot less like something intolerably dark. Fighting this point won't change any minds in and of itself, but most death penalty opponents (in my experience) tend to be rational types more swayed by evidence and reason than by emotion. Which is to say that they're basically the opposite of how most people process something like the death penalty. Which is part of the reason why things are the way they are. After all, if 2/3 support capital punishment and almost 9/10 admit that innocent people have been executed, there's clearly something other than dispassionate logical analysis going on here.

At some point, we death penalty opponents are going to have to realize that the reason we're getting our asses kicked is because we have never been able to rebut the Dukakis question. It's not terribly likely that one's wife or daughter will randomly be raped by a stranger and murdered, since most rape is date rape to begin with, but that is such a vivid and emotional example that virtually everyone can project themselves into, and all the reasonable arguments in the world aren't going to overtake emotionalism of that magnitude (Incidentally, the weakest rebuttal to the question, "If your daughter were raped and murdered, wouldn't you want to see the killer executed?" is "No."). I suppose the equivalent for the anti-capital punishment side is "What if your son happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got falsely accused of a murder and was sentenced to death?" which is simply a lot weaker than the other argument since accepting the premise requires someone to assume their child is associated somehow with undesirables, and if your strategy involves overcoming parental denial it's probably not a good strategy. It might work well among minorities with whom the police have a less friendly relationship overall, but that's going to reach only a limited amount of people, necessarily. How to make this argument to your average suburban household, then? I admit that I really don't know, and the lack of institutional support for ending capital punishment makes outreach all the more difficult. At best, the pro-life movement pays lip service to capital punishment. And that's at best. Then again, considering their track record, I don't think anyone is really crying out for their help.

When you get down to it, though, capital punishment functions as a microcosm of the American public's relationships with our civic institutions. In most cases, Americans are skeptical of pretty much all authority, rightly or not, and I can think of plenty of examples of both types. But when anything related to public safety comes up, people seem to become practically inured to any argumentation arguing for healthy skepticism. I'm always the optimist, and I do believe that America will eventually mature into a nation where emotionalism does not guide public policy with such a heavy hand. But that day has not come yet.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.