Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Katz is Right, but for the Wrong Reasons

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

May 27, 1997

Posted to HotWired 27 May 1997

Katz is right to oppose the death penalty for the Unabomber, but for the wrong reasons.

His main argument appears to be based on the premises that (a) the Unabomber's brother would be most heaviliy penalized, when in fact he should be rewarded, and (b) this action may prevent people in the future from turning over potential candidates for the death penalty.

In other words, Katz's premises focus on the unique aspects of the Unabomber case. But from time to time as perpetrators of vicious crimes are brought to justice the call for the death penalty is raised anew.

But the death penalty is wrong, no matter what the circumstances. The details of particular cases do not make it more or less wrong. So the details of the Unabomber case are not what make it wrong to execute him.

So why is the death penalty wrong?

First, it is wrong because killing is wrong. Some people above have quoted the Bible on the subject. The Bible is pretty unequivicol: "Thou shalt not kill." That's pretty clear. It says killing is wrong. Capital punishment is a form of killing. Therefore capital punishment is wrong.

Second, it changes the nature of the crime. The Unabomber (among others) is on trial for murder, that is, for having killed several people. We need to be specific here: his crime is that he killed people. However, in a country where capital punishment is in force, it is not necessarily a crime to kill people. In some cases, and specifically those of an execution, it is legal to kill someone.

Therefore, the Unabomber's crime is not specifically that he killed people. It's that he killed without proper authorization from the state. His crime is not therefore an act of inherent evil. It's essentially a lack or proper paperwork.

Another way of putting the same objection is that capital punishment legitimizes the use of death to attain political or economic objectives. In principle, the only agency which should use this instrument is the state, but once death is identified as a tool, it comes to be seen as a tool by other agencies (for example, drug lords, the mafia, enemies of the state...).

Third, capital punishment is not a satisfactory method of restitution. Above, some people have raised the concept of an 'eye for an eye': the idea that the punishment should be equivalent to the crime. But:

One, we don't really believe in an 'eye for an eye' to begin with. Otherwise, we would have had state-sanctioned cannibals kill and eat Jeffrey Dahlmer. Obviously, we didn't do this. We only extract an eye for an eye when we believe it is somehow legitimate to extract eyes in the first place.

Two, an execution is not an equal reprisal for the crime committed. The Unabomber's victims were unknowing innocents who suddenly, tragically, had their life ended. The Unabomber is a knowing victim who would face his end in full knowledge of the fact. I'm not sure which is worse. But I am sure they are different.

Three, principles of justice based on an'eye for an eye' tend to be self perpetuating. An act is committed. An equally vicious act is committed in reprisal. This in turn leads to a third vicious act in reprisal for the second. The Oklahoma bombing is a good example of once such reprisal. The ongoing conflicts between Isrealis and Palestinians is another. History is replete with examples. At some point, somebody has to stop plucking eyes.

My fourth reason for believing that capital punishment is wrong is that it offers no restitution. In property crimes, it is common for the perpetrator to be required to repay the cost of losses or damage. This is not possible in cases of murder, because it is not possible to restore victims to life. And in no way does executing the criminal parallel restore the victim for life.

As an aside, an interesting variant on this theme played itself out in Canada recently. A white man (race is relevant in this example) killed a native woman and went unpunished for 20 years. He was finally brought to justice and sentenced to jail. Through a series of exchanges, he met with the victims family and tribe, and made restitution by being adopted as a member of the tribe. This was in my mind an amazing act of compassion and wisdom on the part of the elders of that tribe.

Fifth, capital punishment does not achieve its sometimes stated objective of deterrence. If it did, then the United States, which has one of the highest execution rates in the world (I believe it ranks second) would have one of the lowest crime rates. Yet crime remains a major problem in the United States. By contrast, Canada, located right next door, has no death penalty and yet has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Moreover, it is unreasonable to expect that the death penalty would have any deterrent effect. For the most part, murders are not planned, rational acts in which the consequences are considered. They are often acts carried out in fits of rage, drink or drug induced stupor, psychotic episodes, and the like. The threat of capital punishment has no effect in such cases.

As for murders who are rational, I would suspect that a large part of their planning involves the assumption that they won't be caught. If they are not caught, then capital punishment is hardly a deterrence. Thus cases where rational murderers are caught are cases where they misjudged their own abilities, not where they misjudged the consequences.

For my own part, I am quite disturbed by the fact that rational people would consider killing another person to be a legimate means of advancing their own interests. This can only happen in a society which believes that killing is a legitimate form of pursuasion. Such is not a society I wish to be a part of or support.

Sixth, capital punishment is a mechanism which prohibits restitution where cases of injustice occur. A number of such cases have surfaced recently. In Canada, for example, a man called Donald Marshall (no angel, by the way) was wrongly convicted of murder and spent years in jail. Cleared of his crime (it turned out a key witness had lied), he was set free. He then took the government to court seeking financial compensation for his time spent in prison. A person wrongly executed cannot have his sentence commuted, much less seek financial remediation.

It is easy to say that we have to trust the justice system in such cases, however, evidence shows pretty clearly that we have a far from perfect system of justice. People are wrongly convicted on a regular basis, as can be seen by the fact that their verdicts are later overturned.

Additionally, there is evidence that there is systematic racism inherent in some level of the system, as evidence by the fact that a disporportionate number of blacks (in the U.S.) and natives (in Canada) populate our jails. The use of capital punishment entrenches any racism which may exist in the system.

Another way of putting the same point is that the existence of capital punishment means that it may be used for objectives other than punishing crime. Capital punishment may be used as a means of supporting racist policies, religious (or irreligious) views, political objectives, and the like. Unless there is a very fair system of justice, capital punishment is far too dangerous a weapon to leave in its hands.

Related to this argument is the obverse: the unusually powerful or wealthy are for the most part immune from the extremes of the justice system. This means that capital punishment is a form of punishment used almost exclusively against the poor and powerless segments of society.

For these reasons, and more, I oppose capital punishment. I am thankful to live in a country which for many years has abolished this abhorrent practise. I call on other nations of the world to follow suit, and to work toward a society where life, above all else, is valued and protected.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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