Thursday, April 24th, 2014
Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr / Podcast

Bookmark and Share

Staking a Life

Arthur Koestler opened his polemic against capital punishment in Britain by saying that the island nation was that quaint and antique place where citizens drove on the left hand side of the road, drank warm beer, made a special eccentricity of the love of animals, and had felons “hanged by the neck until they are dead.” Those closing words—from the formula by which a capital sentence was ritually announced by a heavily bewigged judge—conveyed in their satisfyingly terminal tones much of the flavor and relish of the business of judicially inflicted death.

The last hanging in Britain occurred in 1964. Across the channel in France, the peine de mort was done away with by the Mitterrand administration in the early 1980s. So the two great historic homelands of theatrical capital punishment—conservative Britain with its “bloody code” and exemplary gibbetings described by Dickens and Thackeray, and Jacobin France with its humanely utilitarian instrument of swift justice for feudalism promoted by the good Doctor Guillotin—have both dispensed with the ultimate penalty. The reasoning was somewhat different in each case. In Britain there had been considerable queasiness as a consequence of a number of miscarriages of justice that had led to the hanging of the innocent. In France, in the memorable words of Mitterrand’s Minister of Justice, M. Robert Badinter, the scaffold had come to symbolize “a totalitarian concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state.”

Since then no country has been allowed to apply for membership or association with the European Union without, as a precondition, dismantling its apparatus of execution. This has led states like Turkey to forego what was once a sort of national staple. The United Nations condemns capital punishment—especially for those who have not yet reached adulthood—and the Vatican has come close to forbidding if not actually anathematizing the business. This leaves the United States of America as the only nation in what one might call the West, that does not just continue with the infliction of the death penalty but has in the recent past expanded its reach. More American states have restored it in theory and carried it out in practice, and the last time the Supreme Court heard argument on the question it was to determine whether capital punishment should be inflicted for a crime other than first-degree murder (the rape of a child being the suggested pretext for extension).

To be in the company of Iran and China and Sudan as a leader among states conducting execution—and to have pioneered the medicalized or euthanized form of it that is now added to the panoply of gassing, hanging, shooting, and electrocution and known as “lethal injection”—is to have invited the question why. Why is the United States so wedded to the infliction of the death penalty? I have heard a number of suggested answers: two in particular have some superficial plausibility. The first is an old connection between executions and racism, and the second is the relatively short distance in time that separates the modern U.S. from the days of frontier justice.

Now it is true that you are very much more likely to be put to death by the state if you are a black person who has murdered a white person than you are if that condition is stated in reverse. Indeed, it was this disparity among others that led to the practice being suspended so widely for so long. And it is also true that the business of execution is carried on more enthusiastically and more systematically in the states of the former Confederacy. On both the occasions when I myself have visited death row, once in Mississippi and once in Missouri, the historic Dixie stench that surrounded the proceedings was absolutely unmistakable. Bill Clinton’s 1992 execution of the mentally disabled black man Ricky Ray Rector—at a strategic moment in the evolution of the red-faced governor of Arkansas into the trustworthy figure of an “electable” neoliberal— was the closest thing to a straight-out lynching that has been seen in the past generation. But traditional bigotries do not explain why the penalty has lately been restored in New York and California, and why a Federal execution “facility” has been built in Terre Haute, Indiana, birthplace of Eugene Debs (and used as a launching pad from which to kick the ultrawhite Timothy McVeigh off the planet).

Our historic proximity to the wild-and-woolly days of yore won’t quite elucidate the phenomenon either. Europe in the last few decades saw a very great deal more violence and chaos on its own soil than any American has ever had to witness on home turf, even at Antietam or in the Wilderness campaign; yet there isn’t a gallows left between Lisbon and the Urals. “Terrorism”—the gravamen of the charge against McVeigh and the excuse for Clinton’s post-Oklahoma City “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act”—doesn’t quite cut it either. Israel is much more frequently and savagely hit by indiscriminate attacks on its civilians, and it does not have resort to the death penalty.

It took me some time to notice where this process of elimination was leading me. For example, as I once found myself arguing, the state of Michigan has a provision in its founding constitution that forbids capital punishment. Yet high as the rate of violent crime is in Michigan, it is not noticeably worse than in neighboring and somewhat comparable Illinois (where former Governor George Ryan was not long ago compelled to impose a moratorium on execution, it having been discovered that there were more innocent than guilty people on the state’s death row. You know how that can upset people….) Thus, as I was going on to argue, there is no reason to suppose that the death penalty is a deterrent. And then it hit me. I had been hammering on an open door. Nobody had been bothering to argue that the rope or the firing squad, or the gas chamber, or “Old Sparky” the bristle-making chair, or the deadly catheter were a deterrent. The point of the penalty was that it was death. It expressed righteous revulsion and symbolized rectitude and retribution. Voila tout! The reason why the United States is alone among comparable countries in its commitment to doing this is that it is the most religious of those countries. (Take away only China, which is run by a very nervous oligarchy, and the remaining death-penalty states in the world will generally be noticeable as theocratic ones.)

Once we clear away the brush, then, we can see the crystalline purity of the lex talionis and the principle of an eye for an eye. (You might wish to look up the chapter of Exodus in which that stipulation occurs: it is as close to sheer insane ranting and wicked babble as might well be wished, and features the famous ox-goring and witch-burning code on which, one sometimes fears, too much of humanity has been staked.) I used to debate these questions with the late Professor Ernest van den Haag, a legal scholar of the William Buckley National Review school. He was always admirably blunt and concise. In the case of an execution of an innocent person, he once said to me, the necessary point had nonetheless been made: the state and the community had shown that they were prepared to kill. It did not especially matter if they had or had not taken the “right” life: the demonstration had nonetheless been forcibly made. (You might remember the scene in Doctor Zhivago when Strelnikov says that the peasants understand who is boss once their village has been burned, whether they had been harboring the enemy or not. “Your point: their village,” is Zhivago’s sickly and bleeding-heart reply.)

I found, and find, van den Haag’s position to be entirely repellent, and I am not alone. At an execution I attended in 1987 at the Parchman Prison Farm in Mississippi, the guilt of the condemned man was so uncertain that the warden later resigned from his job in horror and disgust. But if one is to lay stress on such cases, then one is morally obliged to consider the approximate equivalents. How might you feel if a friend or loved one was to be murdered by a criminal who had killed before but who had been released prematurely? How might you feel if an inmate or a guard was slain by someone who had been sentenced to life without parole? In these cases, a crisp and swift application of the death penalty would have saved lives. Finally, what about the family whose infant daughter is first raped and then beaten and maimed and then buried alive (as the disturbed earth at her gravesite and the filth under her fingernails dismally proves, and as actually happened recently)? The beast-man is then apprehended. Never mind deterrence for an instant—does not all nature shriek aloud that he cannot be kept alive while she is dead, and that no peace is possible for her family until the rapist and torturer and murderer is no more?

Here, I think, we come up against the old problem of perfectibility and predictability. We cannot know in advance which malefactor, pre-emptively terminated, might have become a repeat offender. Nor can we know, until we set up a “pre-crime” system of detection, which pedophile might in other ways turn out to be a psychopath. So it isn’t in our power to save the second category of lives unless we agree to execute all murderers and child rapists. But it is possible to eliminate the execution of the innocent, simply by joining the association of countries that have dispensed with the death penalty.

One might be asked: What about the Nuremberg verdicts or the execution of a war criminal and mass murderer like Saddam Hussein? In both cases certain people had to leave the planet before their surviving victims—and their maimed countries and societies—had a chance of feeling normal again. I think that without undue casuistry one could argue that the hanging of the Nazi commanders was an extension of war by other means: it constituted the closing act of the war, as the hanging of Saddam Hussein constituted the conclusion or consummation of regime change in Iraq. That said, in both cases there were ugly aspects of the trials and the hangings, and there are many in Israel to argue that the Jewish state’s only-ever execution (of Adolf Eichmann) contributed to the coarsening of Israeli society. Certainly a country that makes a habit of the practice is running the risk of brutalization, which is why it can be a mistake to argue from exceptional cases. Once you institute the penalty, the bureaucratic machinery of death develops its own logic, and the system can be relied on to spare the beast-man, say, on a technicality of insanity, while executing the hapless Texan indigent who wasn’t able to find a conscientious attorney.

“The machinery of death,” indeed, was the phrase employed by Justice Harry Blackmun in stating his reasons for believing that the system of capital punishment was essentially beyond reform, and needed to be ended, not mended. In a primitive society or a theocratic state based on moral absolutism, there may be a certain “rough” justice in hauling the condemned man straight from his “trial” to the place of stoning, where at least the aggrieved relatives of his victim can have their moment of cruel catharsis. But in a modern state that allows for appeals, judicial review, and the admission of new evidence, the death sentence is only the beginning of a protracted and tortuous process to which we give—and I apologize for using the expression myself—the apotropaic name of “Death Row.” At once too random and too institutional and systematic, this dire business has now become an offense both to law and to justice.

Bookmark and Share
Love this? Subscribe to Lapham's Quarterly today.

Comments Post a Comment »

  • Thank you, Mr. Hitchens. You always make such brilliant sense. How nice it would be to live in a nation where brilliance and sense were respected.

    Posted by Nanette in Wisconsin on Wed 21 Sep 2011

  • Coming from the same man who cheered on a million plus innocent Iraqis and Afghanistanis to their premature graves through his support of the Neo Cons and their pre-emptive strikes I don't think I need to be lectured by Chris Hitchens on the death penalty. The man has been wrong on the most important intellectual decisions of his day.

    Posted by Charles Frith on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • Thank you, Mr Hitchens.

    The historical perspective you brought to your argument is invaluable. I have not seen such a concise, yet thorough review of the death penalty before.

    Thank you

    Remember Troy Davis...

    Posted by Irene haralabatos on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • To Charles Frith: I too was deeply disappointed by Mr Hitchens' support of the neo-con position in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it would be fallacious to say that those beliefs therefore render his arguments here incorrect.

    Posted by BaldySlaphead on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • @Charles Firth I'd love to see some citing of sources for that Mr. Firth. I'm no fan of Hitchens but I don't know of what you speak.

    Posted by Joshua on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • This is exactly how I feel, and have felt about the death penalty for all of my 50 some years.
    Admittedly, until I reached about 40 my reasons for abolition were what could be referred to as "bleeding heart" reasons. I now have no touchy feely, 'your childhood must have been shit', reasons. Just a moral horror at the sheer idea of this sort of blood-lust.
    For those that commit heinous murders, lock them up forever if need be. Do we really want the government to commit meditated murder on our behalf?
    I understand on an emotional level a parent murdering a man who had tortured and murdered their child. (Although not right, needless to say). It is emotional.
    We don't make laws (or shouldn't) based on our emotions. We have representatives at all levels of law makers, government and the court system, with input from elected government officials that are all charged with undertaking sober thought of the various penalties. Citizens participate in this discourse obviously.
    Thankfully I live in Canada where we do not have the death penalty.

    Posted by Frances on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • @ Charles Firth,Christopher hitchens decision to support the war in Iraq and afganistan, for a big part was not because he supports war.its the exact opposite, the man was obliged to support a war that will end the suffering of the people of Iraq and Afganisan, i agree that the wars were not for the sake of these people, nor their outcome was such that people who wanted the tyrrany to end was. but,for a person like you, who was against that war, what would your response be to 100's of thousands of Iraqi kurds and afgan families whom were suffering under these tyrranies? it sound that most americans who were against the war, were just against it because there were no WMD'sin Iraq, like if Saddam couldnt harm me so leave him alone to do whatever he wants with these people who live there.. doesn't sound really like an ethecal stance, does it? at least christopher hitchens saw the reallity oif it, knew that sometimes you have to ally yourself with the lesser devil to save million's of lives, and i admire him for that.

    Posted by Alan Esmail on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • I agree that Hitchens was wrong on Iraq. It's obvious. But his main point here, about why some states have the death penalty despite its inefficacy, is on solid ground.

    He didn't mention the fact that a lot of anti-abortionists support the death penalty. That's always fun.

    Where Hitchens gets it wrong is his 'special plea' as to why it was okay to execute the Nazis. He writes, "it constituted the closing act of the war". Do we shoot enemy soldiers after they have surrendered?

    Posted by Karim D. Ghantous (@kdghantous) on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • @Karim D. Ghantous
    No, at the end of a war we do not shoot the surrendered soldiers - we shoot the surrendered Generals instead. I think that may have been his point.
    Also, why does nobody seem to see that our operations in Iraq & Afghanistan were anti-imperialistic efforts? Expeditionary armies to man the borders of an aggressive Iran, keen to expand in to a Greater Persian Empire as far West as Egypt and as far East as even the Chinese border in the North, thus controlling the 1st & 2nd largest reserves of oil in the world, the Suez canal & Kashmir. All this whilst harbouring unambiguous ambitions for nuclear proliferation - and it never gets mentioned!! by politicians ( because helping the oppressed is a better diplomatic tactic than saying " We know what you're up to & we're heading you off at the pass" ) or by public intellectuals either afraid of being tainted with racism or because they've not been looking at a map & current affairs hard enough.
    Iran, incidentally, hang men & women in the streets from mobile cranes making the last sound some tragic Persians hear is a revving diesel engine - reasons as to why the massive expansion of this ugly, murderous theocracy would be a good idea elude me, thus I'm moved to support the operations to contain it.

    Posted by ronnie james on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • Thank you Christopher Hitchens for your article.

    I found that the movie "True Grit" brilliantly encapsulated the complexities of the religiously self-righteous, revenge-seeking ethos at the heart of some aspects of the American character - an ethos which tragically manifests itself today in its policies on the death penalty, as you have described, as well as, I would contend, some of its foreign policy eg invading Iraq. Let's hope, however, that Lincoln's "better angels" do prevail in the end with regard to this particular struggle over the American soul. Perhaps articles like yours will go some way towards helping that happen.

    Thanks again, Meg Donnelly

    Posted by Meg Donnelly on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • Breaking: As is customary with prisoner executions in the United States, Troy Davis death certificate will be marked "homicide."

    Posted by HL on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • As much as we may 'feel' justified at the execution of Nazi leaders or Timothy McVeigh, is it really all that disturbing that Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan are still alive?

    Warehousing unspeakable people may not a perfect alternative, but it is better than risking the murder of the innocent. Over a long enough stretch of time, the driving emotions seem to settle back into a more reasonable range.

    Posted by John the Drunkard on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • I can think of swifter, more humane and utilitarian ways of enacting justice for feudalism than driving people through the streets in an open cart, having them wait in a queue while those ahead of them were executed and then swiftly and cleanly slicing off their head in front of an enormous baying crowd.

    Posted by Steve Heywood on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • @Charles Frist What's an Afghanistani?

    Posted by trailerparkprince on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • You mean "Take away only China...and North Korea", right? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think North Korea is a theocracy.

    Posted by Bill Horvath II on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • @Bill Horvath II

    Kim ill-sung is worshiped as Eternal President and divine leader after his death.
    Kim jong ill has even more appalling semi-religious iconography forced on the people and subjects his people daily to quite enough debasing worship of his cult of personality to qualify North Korea as an autocratic theocracy.

    Posted by Jack Sandle on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • As much as I despise mine being lumped into the company of such countries as listed by Mr. Hitchens, I still hold to the rhetoric of Heinlein, where the guilt is beyond doubt of such horrors as child-rape: "All I know is, he won't kill any little girls again," It is not a deterrent to others, just as Hitchens has argued that Hell as a deterrent should fill all non-Christians with dread: "Do you mean to say that if you did not fear Hell, you would *do* all those things...?" Finally, as expounded by Robinson, "If he is mentally sick, well, don't we kill mad dogs? And if he can be made sane, how can he live knowing what he's done? He would, if made sane, kill himself."

    Posted by DTs on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • To read Hitchens grandstand on the evils of capital punishment whilst being a cheerleader for endless war is akin to being lectured on modesty by a pornstar. Hitch is a neocon fraud. The million dead in Iraq were condemned to death by his enthusiasm for militarism. And the hundred thousand Afghans clusterbombed to death will not be aided by his posturing.

    Newsflash Hitch: War is the ultimate death penalty.

    He's gone from backing one mass murdering authoritarian known to historians of tyranny as Trotsky to another mass murdering vulgarian named Bush. He backed the election of Bush knowing full well his record of signing the death warrants of many deathrow inmates as Texan governer.

    To conscript the saintly name of Arthur Koestler for his own nationalist ends is the height of irony. Stick with your neocon buddies Cheney and Wolfowitz Hitch. You look good together raining down bombs from the security of your laptops and posturing as great warriors.

    Hitch's support for the election of Bush:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2209133/

    Posted by Faysal Ahmed on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • To all of you describing Hitchens as a war advocate:

    You aren't being honest about what "war" means. War means a conflict between two sovereign nations. Iraq was not a nation. It was millions of people suffering unspeakably at the whims of one psychopathic crime family and its thug friends.

    No honest Iraqi (and no Iraqis I know) want to return to that. Most properly understood, the "Iraq War" was not a war AGAINST Iraq, but a battle against Saddam Hussein very much on behalf of Iraq.

    Posted by David Andrukonis on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • @ David Andrukonis

    Agreed, Iraq was a nation of people "suffering unspeakably". From US imposed economic sanctions which killed half a million Iraqi children under a tyrant whose crimes were backed by the US when it gave Saddam permission as part of the Gulf War ceasefire to lift his helicopters in the air to put down the Shia rebellion and gass the Kurds when the US had complete dominance of the skies because of the Shia ties with Iran.

    The US heaped a million more dead Iraqis on top of its other crimes.

    And Hitchens backed the election of a president who openly mocked a female inmate of death row as reported by Tucker Carlson:

    "Carlson reported that Bush mocked soon-to-be-executed Texas Death Row inmate Karla Faye Tucker and "cursed like a sailor."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tucker_Carlson#1999_Bush_interview

    Posted by Faysal Ahmed on Thu 22 Sep 2011

  • @ Faysal Ahmed

    Of course I agree that to take pleasure in the plight of another is sadistic.

    For me, it is precisely BECAUSE the United States was to blame for originally enabling the Ba'ath party, and Hussein in particular, that it became ALL THE MORE our responsibility to make it right.

    It's not enough just to say, "See, the U.S. is at fault," and then stand, arms folded, thinking something has been accomplished by simply making that observation.

    We couldn't possibly abandon the Kurds again, or the Shia Iraqis, or even most of the Sunni Iraqis any longer. It was our moral, human responsibility to remove our human brothers and sisters in Iraq from the state of absolute, full-time terror and humiliation in which they lived for 25 years too long.

    Posted by David Andrukonis on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • About me: I've lived in US for 20+ years.

    I think this is a rather poorly argued article with faulty logic. I often agree with the author and I have a number of issues with religion. In fact, I am an atheist myself. At the same time, I still support the death penalty. I absolutely agree that it is not a deterrent. It is indeed retribution and that doesn't have to come from religion. Though I'd like to see it applied far more selectively. The proof should be above and beyond any reasonable doubt. But really, that's the same thing that the Hitchkens is arguing, it's just a matter of where you are on the scale. He is ok with killing Nazis & Hussein, so clearly he isn't against it in principle.

    Now, if you were to argue that any government administered death penalty will eventually degenerate into the state it is in the US, that might be a more interesting point.

    Posted by Vasiliy Pupkin on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • And how deeply predictable that a Conservative MP on Question Time last night trotted out the 'deterrent' argument as a defence of capital punishment. Blank stares and silence met others on the panel who pointed out that in countries that have the death penalty, people still murder other people.

    Posted by Cid on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • There never were a million death certificates issued in Iraq.
    And how many of those killed were killed by coalition soldiers? Not long after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam the bombs were being set of by former Baath party thugs, al Qeada and the Mahdi army.

    Posted by Craig on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • @ David Andrukonis

    Hitch cannot grandstand over the death penalty when he backed the election of Bush who was the most prolific signer of death warrants and a great enthusiast for dropping bombs on Arabs.

    And America's moral responsibility after starving half a million Iraqi kids was not to kill another million Iraqis. The logic is defective.

    The Kurds do not enjoy peace either as you might know if you paid any attention. Turkey bombs them in Northern Iraq with US backing:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/21/turkey-bombs-kurdish-rebels-iraq

    Posted by Faysal Ahmed on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • @ Craig

    To say the US did not kill the million dead Iraqis is to vindicate Hitler's role in killing 50 million people in the Second World War because not all were killed on his direct orders; the fact remains that he was responsible for triggering the conflict which did.

    The Nuremberg Trials asserted that aggressive states are culpable for the fall out which ensues from their invasion. The US bears the same culpability.

    Posted by Faysal Ahmed on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • @ Faysal Ahmed

    30 million Iraqis are now forever free from the Hussein's rape rooms, gas chambers, and firing squads. Over a million Iraqis were executed in those ways, and the other 29 million lived in full-time fear of it. Now, Iraqis have finally dug up their relatives from Hussein's mass graves. The psychological devastation is over. They live in free society. You go ask them which world is better.

    WHENEVER a nightmarish regime of the Ba'athist scope is finally felled, violent struggle will erupt. The only thing that kind of violence is better than, is the physical and psychological hell that came before it.

    You seem to be interested primarily in making snide quips at the expense of the United States. I am interested in improving the lives of my human siblings all over the world. I support the small and weak against the strong and abusive, and I cheer the freeing of crushed citizens from sadistic dictators, even if it takes a bloody struggle first.

    As for you: Saddam Hussein violated international treaties, bringing promised sanctions, and yet you don't mainly blame Saddam. Turkish people kill Kurds, and yet you don't mainly blame the Turks. It seems to me (and serious readers of this forum) that you hate the United States no matter what, and are more interested in casting the U.S. as a malefactor than you are in doing anything else.

    Posted by @ David Andrukonis on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • This guy left out an inconvenient fact. If you look the poll numbers in Europe regarding the death penalty these are not much different than in America. But Europe is run by its' elites and these folks are opposed to the death penalty for a wide range of excuses most of which are related to disdain or contempt for the unwashed masses. The bottom line is that Europe is less democratic than the US.

    Posted by Erick Blair on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • Who cares what Hitchens thinks.

    There are crimes committed that are so heinous that death for the perpetrator is the only rational and fitting punishment. The canard that innocent people are executed is untrue, at least for over 60 years in the U.S. The real tragedy is that a sentence of 'death' means 15-20 more years of life for the killer.

    Posted by Not Chicken Little on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • China executes people because Marxism is a religion, albeit and atheistic religion. Marxists are expected to have absolute faith, and China has a policy of thought control (sixiang gaizao). The only two doctrines nowadays that are accepted with blind, unquestioning fatih are Marxism and Islam. Despite the fact that Exodus 22:18 commands us to execute witches and Leviticus 20:18 commands us to execute homosexuals, witchcraft and homosexuality are no longer capital offenses in the West.

    Posted by George Jochnowitz on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • Oops. I meant to type Leviticus 20:13. Sorry.

    Posted by George Jochnowitz on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • Wrong. The US is so dedicated to the death penalty because one important social actor, the Republican party and its allies, has dedicated itself to promoting the death penalty since the 1970s. In fact, before the Republicans began the "tough on crime" campaign under Nixon as part of their general assault on hippidom and the Warren Court, Christian congregations were some of the firmest opponents of the death penalty. When the Republican party took up the issue, bundled with the Southern Strategy as "Tough on Crime" was, the death penalty ceased to be an issue of personal or communal morality and became an issue of cultural, and hence political(because the parties position themselves as the guardians of US culture), identification. The strength of the death penalty in the US is a direct result of the politicization of religion brought on by Nixon and Reagan, and the religionization of politics pioneered by their evangelical allies.

    Posted by Julian on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • Chapter 3 of the book, Hanged by the Neck: An Exposure of Capital Punishment in England, by Arthur Koestler and C.H. Rolph, begins, "Great Britain is that peculiar country in Europe where people drive on the left side of the road, measure in inches and yards, and hang people by the neck until dead." Unless Koestler wrote something similar elsewhere, it appears that Mr. Hitchens relied upon his faulty memory in the first sentence of this article, and should not have used quotation marks. (The book acknowledges that chapter 3 previously appeared in Koestler's book, Reflections on Hanging; it does not indicate that chapter 3 was changed for Hanged by the Neck.)

    Posted by Henry Cohen on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • I've gone from being totally anti-death to being for it in instances where the killer has murdered a public safety officer, be he/she in the military, police force, fire dept, etc or has committed a mass murder like McVeigh and his accomplice accomplished or the 9/11 perps.

    For the 'ordinary' one-on-one murders be it during a robbery or family oriented life or even serial killers then prison is good enough. It seems stupid to even try to put to death a woman who drowns her children or a spouse killer, for instance.

    Posted by Norman on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • Excellent article, and I agree 99%.

    The only 1% which I found disagreeable was the sentence or two associating capital punishment in the USA with America's religiosity. A thousand other capricious associations could be made, such as with our prosperity or our diversity or even the number of lakes between our shores, but Mr Hitchens' personal bias shows here just a bit. Nonetheless this was an excellent, excellent article.

    In fact, the Church is very much against capital punishment. The Catechism puts it this very sensible way:

    "2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    "If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    "Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

    Source:
    http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a5.htm

    Posted by Reggie on Fri 23 Sep 2011

  • I agree that the death penalty is a terrible wrong, but why blame it on the Torah? I don't understand what Hitchens thinks people were doing before Moses came along with the lex talionis. People did not respond to eye-gougings and murders with equanimity and humane forbearance, but with excessive retribution. Hence a principle that limits retribution to the nature of the injury. Read an Icelandic saga if you want a picture of justice untainted by the influence of Moses.

    Posted by Ben Dueholm on Sat 24 Sep 2011

  • Christopher,

    You haven't faced the point. A pit-bull that has ripped the fetus from a pregnant woman is shot by the police. It is not to punish him, nor is it as a deterrence to other pit-bulls, but to destroy him.

    Posted by John Guilbert on Sat 24 Sep 2011

  • I am no fan of religion, but I say Hitchens has it wrong. He all too easily dismisses the counter-example of China, which is by far the greatest executioner today. He also fails to include the fact that the Vatican is opposed to executions.

    No, what is common about all states that execute is an insecurity about their legitimacy. Executions are meant to prove to the populace that even if the state can get nothing else right, at least it can do this much. It can line up acceptable scapegoats and have them shot. If they didn't do this, it would leave the public to wonder whether these governments were capable of anything at all. And by doing this, they remind the public that yes, they do own the guns.

    Posted by Oodoodanoo on Sat 24 Sep 2011

  • Norman, five comments above this one, writes, "I've gone from being totally anti-death to being for it in instances where the killer has murdered a public safety officer." Troy Davis was charged with killing a police officer. Norman, do you favor the death penalty for innocent people convicted of killing a public safety officer? You must, because we can't execute guilty people without also executing innocent ones. (This is not to say that you are happy about executing innocent people, but you favor doing so in that you know that it is unavoidable if we have the death penalty, yet you are nevertheless willing to have the death penalty.)

    Posted by Henry Cohen on Sat 24 Sep 2011

  • @ David Andrukonis

    I'm glad that you agree Hitchens backed Bush knowing all too well that he was a death penalty enthusiast. And that despite neocon propaganda the Kurds are still being killed in Iraq by Turkey with active US backing.

    I concur that Turkey has killed many thousands of Kurds with US supplied arms. I condemn it and call for the US to stop backing Turkey's continuing murder of Kurds in both Northern Iraq and Turkey. All of which disproves your assertion that America wants to help the Kurds.

    Hitchens backed the death penalty abroad and at home by his support for Bush and his grandstanding here fools no one.

    Posted by Faysal Ahmed on Sun 25 Sep 2011

  • Whatever Mr. Hitchens's views on the Iraq war are now, or back when, it completely immaterial to the argument at hand, and a waste of time and bandwidth.

    My question is this: I've tried to find out whether or not Ricky Ray Rector was mentally disabled ---when he committed his two murders--- one a police officer who was a) a childhood friend, b) trusted Mr. Rector enough to turn his back on him when c) Mr. Rector specifically asked for his old childhood friend to arrest him after his first murder three days before. After shooting his police officer friend in the head when the officer trusted him, Mr. Rector then attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head and botched it. That, apparently, is when Mr. Rector's "diminished mental capacity" came into being. The point is: he was apparently approximately of reasonably normal capacity when he decided to shoot two people. Isn't that how he should be judged - by his mental capacity at the time of committing the crimes, and not the time of the court hearings?

    Mr. Hitchens, if you read this - I hope you do, I am mostly a fan of yours (discovered you through reading P. J. O'Rourke) - what information do you have about Mr. Rector's mental capacity before he wrecked his brains with a gunshot?

    Or was this whole thing just another crack at discrediting Bill Clinton - admittedly a popular activity back in the 1990s? I suspect that if this had been Texas with Governor George W. Bush, they would have given him the needle and there would have been nary a peep from the Right. Cop killer, shot a perfect stranger firing wildly into a crowd over a $3 cover charge - another mad dog to be put down. Too bad he addled himself in a suicide attempt, but in Texas, is that really a consideration?

    Sorry; I myself think that if Mr. Rector was operating at normal capacity when he committed his murders, executing him was the right thing to do no matter his capacity at the time of his sentencing.

    Posted by Guy Tanzer on Sun 25 Sep 2011

  • Mr Hitchens - the death penalty is penance for our sins. The chief sin: The 2nd Amendment.

    The "civilized" world has abolished the death penalty.

    True, but no developed nation has the kind of gun laws that we have, that gives ordinary people such latitude in the taking of life. The death penalty and the 2nd Amendment are inextricably linked. The value of life is not very high in the US. For our society, killing someone is not a very big deal - we see it portrayed hundreds of times every day on TV shows, movies etc. If it was such a big deal, the NY Times and every other media outlet would have a front page feature every day about the service men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan that day. But they don't, because death is really not that newsworthy in America.

    Apart from a few protests like your own, most Americans are not that concerned that an innocent person might have been executed in error.

    If executions were televised, they would get "off the graph" ratings.

    It's a sad fact that this country is one of the undeveloped nations in many respects. The death penalty is one of them. We are no better, as you say than Iran and China. We are a savage society.

    When the Constitution makes it so easy for a deranged person to acquire an automatic weapon and commit mass murder, try convincing the victims' families that the mass-murderer should not be put to death.

    We almost deserve the death penalty in this country. It is as if we are punishing ourselves, a penance for our right to bear weapons of mass murder.

    Posted by Bernard on Tue 27 Sep 2011

  • "He didn't mention the fact that a lot of anti-abortionists support the death penalty. That's always fun"

    That's always fun? How exactly is that even an argument. If you look at an innocent child and then a known murderer, and you don't see how people could come to the conclusion that one should be protected, and the other destroyed, then you are one disturbed individual.

    Posted by Mike on Tue 27 Sep 2011

  • From a reader on Andrew Sullivan's website:

    "In 2010, as far as I can tell, these five states executed the most people:

    1. China (2000+)
    2. Iran (252+)
    3. North Korea (60+)
    4. Yemen (53+)
    5. USA (46+)

    Two of the top three entities are explicitly atheist. Hitch's assertion that we can ignore Chinese executions because they are a "very nervous oligarchy" can easily be used for Iran considering, you know, they actually have a demonstrable REASON to be nervous - the 2009 protests/Green Movement, hostile relationship with the world's only superpower, etc - and because any analyst of Iran worth his salt will tell you that their government is an extremely Byzantine oligarchy, not a true dictatorship. In other words, you don't get to throw China out and retain the Iranians while making this argument. Yemen is a barely functioning state of tribes. Surprise.

    As for us, maybe "God" has something to do with it. But I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest something risky: perhaps it has more to do with a very particular brand of Protestant Christian theology than it does with "God"."

    Posted by biomuse on Tue 27 Sep 2011

  • (Cont'd from above)

    "I didn't see Hitch accounting for ultra-Catholic South America, where Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela have explicitly abolished the death penalty. There are also a handful of countries that have de facto abolished the practice, having not carried out an execution for at least the last two decades: Dominica (1986), El Salvador (1973), Grenada (1978), Jamaica (1988), Peru (1979), Suriname (1982), Brazil (1876). Most of these nations retain the death penalty for possible use in cases like treason or crimes against humanity. Somehow one of the most religious continents in the world seems to have escaped Hitch's sight.

    I get it. Hitch hates God. But this seems like a classic case of him beginning with his own very well-known assumptions and then hastily assembling the best argument he can make to support it. Religious conservatives will always point to communist dictatorships. Liberal atheists will point to religious theocracies. Both are capable of great evil. You don't need to believe in God to murder. And just because you believe in God doesn't preclude you from being a murderer. More than anything, it is just simply absolutism in something that deludes people into murder."

    Posted by biomuse on Tue 27 Sep 2011

  • I've often wondered why, if the death penalty is permitted, we not also permit the torture of those on whom we seek "justice"? How is torture so much more cruel and unusual than killing someone? If it *were* that much more loathsome, then what harm could there be in offering inmates a choice: e.g. "you can either endure three months of torture eight hours a day, and afterward you'll be locked up without parole; or in 15 years' time, you'll be sentenced to death." Heck, it could be broadcast live, so as to even afford more catharsis!

    Perhaps the death penalty is comparable to a frozen deboned chicken breast. Much like quick-to-prepare meat, the death penalty is conceptually neat and tidy -- punctual, even: the guy was alive and now he's dead. Torture and corporal punishment, like DIY animal slaughter, are perhaps far too heart-rending and evocative. Can't have that, now, can we?

    Posted by LT on Wed 28 Sep 2011

  • One good reason for dispensing with the death penalty is that it has to be administered by others and so brutalizes and distresses all involved. Perhaps those found guilty of horrendous crimes should be given the option of suicide. I think some would take it and there would be some dignity for all involved.

    Posted by Blindboy on Thu 29 Sep 2011

  • A proposed compromise: abolish the death penalty in all cases except possibly the rape, torture and/or murder of a child. In turn, ALL murder convictions regardless of degree carry a a mandatory life term, perhaps of the type once known as "hard labor."

    Posted by Nick Motto on Sat 1 Oct 2011

  • "A proposed compromise: abolish the death penalty in all cases except possibly the rape, torture and/or murder of a child."

    This suggestion seems like nonsense to me. If you're going to execute someone on behalf of a murdered child, you should be prepared to do the same thing on behalf of a murdered adult. (Or perhaps we can execute a killer of adults provided that the victim was remarkably nice, loveable, well-liked in his community, etc ?) A position of pure emotion (untempered by reason) is the only position from which one could make that distinction, and that's the problem with capital punishment to begin with.

    Posted by J. Beale on Mon 3 Oct 2011

  • Another great Hitch article. He is one of the smartest primates ever to walk on planet earth.

    Hitchens stand on Iraq is NOT the same as Bush's. Hitch has an existing anto-totalitarian position again the Saddam "crime" family since the genocide against the Kurds a decade+ earlier.

    Posted by M Rourke on Sat 15 Oct 2011

  • I fully support the death penalty; why should my taxes be used to support someone who has 1) abdicated his / her right to be a member of society, 2) are not (and never will be) productive? To say nothing of helping the families of the victims trying to find peace, and vindication for the rest of us who go about our daily lives peacefully?

    Statistics may say that it is not a real deterrent - but then, there are lies, damn lies - and then there are statistics! Even if true, I think one of the main reasons why the death penalty may not be seen to be effective is that it is no longer carried out *in public*. I believe anyone who actually sees the death penalty being carried out, particularly a 'gruesome' one, like a hanging or electrocution) *will* think twice before carrying out a heinous crime. It will help to bring home the idea that crime WILL be punished.

    And as to the excuse of, "But sometimes innocent people are killed in error!" - well, yes, this is regrettable. Really. But 1) while I believe that even 1 error is too many, I don't believe the proportion of innocents executed by mistake is anywhere near the proportion of the guilty. Yes, mistakes will happen - regrettably so. But how big - really - is this problem? And 2) people get killed every day on the roads, also 'by mistake' - I don't hear anyone calling for a ban on vehicles. And yes - I can already hear you disagree, "to be killed in an accident is not the same as being deliberately killed!"

    Tell that to the victims...

    Posted by Philip on Thu 20 Oct 2011

  • Philip: You are clearly confused about the role of law and order and jurisprudence in a free, open and transparent society. Justice is _not_ intended as a means by which an aggrieved person can get their moment of revenge. It is also not intended as a system of assuring the cheapest solution to a given problem for the satisfaction of all. Justice addresses first and foremost the theoretical concept of equality before the law.

    Your argument of "entitlement" and "deserves" as governing who shall live or die runs afoul of the most basic concepts of an open society. Your personal pecuniary interests as well as sense of entitlement must be regarded as utterly unimportant to a decision found in court.

    Societies cost. You cannot want to live in an open society with all its benefits, protected by law, while whining on about taxation and your own hurt ego. Open society and its judicial institutions are not there in order to institutionalise revenge (captial punishment) or any other personal whacky concept of what justice is about ("my" money).

    Posted by Kershaw on Wed 16 Nov 2011

Post a Comment

Note: Several minutes will pass while the system is processing and posting your comment. Do not resubmit during this time or your comment will post multiple times.

Published In
Crimes & Punishments
About the Text

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book is God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

I thought that a Jewish state would be free of the evils afflicting other societies: theft, murder, prostitution…. But now we have them all. And that’s a thing that cuts to the heart.
Golda Meir, 1973
Visual Aids
Political, Scientific, and Technological Revolutions From the wheel, to the rebellion, to the paradigm shift.
Art, Photography, & Illustrations View a selection of art from our latest issue.
Charts & Graphs All of our charts and graphs, pulled from the pages of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Events & News
January 27 / Purchase tickets for "Death & Comedy" a celebration of readings from our two most recent issues at Joe's Pub. More
Apropos

Vague Premonitions

The Great Beyond

Subscribe
Current Issue Revolutions Spring 2014
Blogs

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Audio & Video
LQ Podcast:
Orlando Figes
The Russian historian describes the Revolution’s retreat in the 1920s from its high communist ideals under the New Economic Policy.
Eponym
Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
Recent Issues