I’ve discussed this topic with numerous and various people over the years, the overwhelming majority of whom have taken a directly opposing view to mine. It’s always interested me to argue with those I find myself in disagreement with, since argument is, as the legend that is Malpoet told me not so long ago, the way to the truth. I suppose I want to understand two things here – the multitude of angles from which different people reach the same conclusion, and why the notion of restoring capital punishment is itself so popular. Why do those of us who cannot see its appeal find ourselves in a minority, a not insignificant minority, but a clear one nonetheless?
The problem is that the two questions feed and are intertwined with each other. Something which continues to surprise me is the lack of variety in the arguments for capital punishment, normally centred around the motive of revenge, that ‘a life for a life’ is a fair enough trade-off in cases of deliberate murder, or something about the cost of keeping people in prison, as if those employed to work on death row do so for free, out of the goodness of their hearts, and that cases of murder convicts being stuck there for decades are some figment of an over-active imagination. The reality is that two decades on death row, and indeed many prisoners actually dying while there, is by no means uncommon.
Funnily enough, you don’t hear the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime much these days, certainly nowhere near as much as you used to. Expecting a rational analysis of the potential punishments to influence someone who is either in the midst of a profoundly irrational act of murder, or just operating on a different plain to the rest of us, has always seemed like a bold and misplaced leap of faith to me. The evidence of the United States, which helpfully has some states with and others without the death penalty, indicates no correlation in either direction between the use of capital punishment in a particular state and its murder rate vs those where it was abolished.
I’ve just never been convinced that all of those who support the death penalty have reached that conclusion solely for their stated reasons. Then I got thinking about legitimate outlets a while ago, the ability of power and authority to act as an enabler for our darker thoughts. Child abusers use the unconditional love of their kids as a stick to hit them with. Religious figures have done the same with their followers’ faith in something higher and those appointed to spread the word of that deity. Management of other people within an organisation can easily become a licence for bullies to indulge their nasty streak under the cover of managing performance or internal discipline.
I mean, every last one of us has a dark side, right? Maybe we should acknowledge that fact before we define the nature and scope of the authority we give some individuals over others?
So, where does this tie in with the death penalty? Perhaps the best response on the question of its popularity came from someone who remains undecided on the subject. When I asked him why he thought the restoration of capital punishment was so popular, far more so than could be explained by the reasons given by its supporters, I got a few seconds of profound truth, absolute gold that completely nailed it:-
“Daz, some people just like death, don’t they?”
Now I would never have got this from an advocate of the death penalty, nor would I have necessarily trusted this brainwave fom someone who agreed with its abolition. However, it just happens to be true. We all have tastes that could be described as less than wholesome – be it violence, pornography, violent pornography or whatever. Finding a legitimate outlet for these tastes, one that does not cause harm to others, is fair enough and should certainly not be illegal. For the benefit of knowing what I was talking about, I got through about twenty minutes of the first ‘Faces of Death’ movie before deciding I couldn’t hack it.
Footage of dogfights and tribal beheadings are pretty sick, but still watching it is miles better than actually going out and murdering someone, surely?
We’re now on ‘Faces of Death IV’, while the fifth Grand Theft Auto game was released recently to much background noise from Mary Whitehouse tribute acts. There were three Rambo movies, follow-ups and spin-offs to American Psycho, I could go on and on. The question is, were these books, games and films so challenging as to tempt people back in for a third, fourth and fifth helping? And if, as I suspect, they actually created a legitimate outlet for fixations with death and violence, at least amongst some of those who play, read and watch, then does the prospect of restoring capital punishment do the same thing?
While I was mulling this over, the prospect of televised pay-per-view executions, with the option to go HD via the red button and/or watch from several different camera angles, was one that I toyed with. How many people would subscribe, or hand over ten pounds of their own money for a few hours’ dubious entertainment, perhaps called ‘Judgement Night’ or something similar? If you believe as I do that such a television channel would prove disturbingly popular, then we might be getting at an unspoken and altogether darker reason why the call to re-introduce capital punishment enjoys the sort of majority view that it does.
After all, the murderer doesn’t count. He gave up his right to be regarded as human when he committed a horrific crime, right? And if we’re honest, a helping of DeathPorn to indulge the dark side, free from guilt and/or any sense of consequence, even hidden behind the thin but righteous-looking veil of justice, might leave some of those who benefit personally wondering what the catch is. This is why supporters of capital punishment are so frequently in denial or dismissive about wrongful execution, and it is also a massive reason for its continued popularity that, to coin a phrase, dare not speak its name.
Thanks for reading this series, it’s a subject I’m sure we’ll re-visit at some point in the future. Take it easy.