Thursday, April 09, 2015

Death Penalty

The subject is coming up in this region because of the Boston Marathon bombing trial of Chechen (perhaps more properly Dagestani) Dzhokhar Tsaernaev. Massachusetts is as blue as a state gets, but it pays to remember that all states are purple, after all.  There are many never-no-never anti-death-penalty citizens here, but even some of those are squishy at present. The vehemence of those who want revenge, who want him to suffer and are debating only because they think life imprisonment would make him even more miserable always surprises me.  I come at this from a different direction.

Ex-mayor of Boston Ray Flynn has been sort of rambling, but notes that he has been anti-death-penalty because of the danger of getting it wrong and executing an innocent man. He acknowledges that's not the case here.  I think Flynn's objection is the most sensible, and the only one which carries much weight with me.

I worked 20-30 years ago with dangerous sexual offenders, and still get one on my caseload from time-to-time. Because of this, I went to conferences and trainings in that specialty. The director of prison programs in RI and CT, Peter Loss, (no, I am not kidding) hammered home an idea that has stuck with me in all subsequent discussions of people's dangerousness: Once guilt is established, the safety of the community is the goal which trumps all others.  Whether the inmate is miserable or happy becomes so entirely secondary that it barely factors into our decisions. If we focus on the inmate, we lose focus on the community. If we take revenge because of our feelings today, we might relent and fell sorry for a contrite-sounding inmate 20 years later. And we might be wrong, allowing him to go to his father's funeral or some such, and expose the community to danger unnecessarily.

Because these things have happened many times.

The community's need is met by life imprisonment, but it is met more surely by execution. For those criminals who seek notoriety, the grand spectacle of an execution does feed their narcissism somewhat. No matter. Executed criminals are more quickly forgotten.  We think no one could ever forget this crime which consumes us now, but it will fade.  The details will be fuzzy soon enough.  If he lives, someone from the Globe will do an update story on him every few years, keeping his name alive. That would do as much to encourage those who share his goals as any supposed martyrdom would.

The theory that government violence gives a legitimacy to violence is interesting, but there is nothing to suggest it's true. I don't see that it demonstrably dulls us to pain, death, or evil. That appeals of a death penalty will be long and expensive is true, but not very relevant to me.  We will pay money to support him, or pay money to keep ourselves true to our own standards by enabling appeals. There is no way out there.  I don't believe length of years gives him more years to repent.  Anecdote suggests that coming up against the hard edge of execution does that better.

I prefer that we execute him.  But if not, I will think of it no more. The safety of the community is our focus.


james said...

There is more than one community involved here. The people temporarily inside, who we expect to one day see outside again, deserve protection from the most predatory among them. If you can't mix the predatory with the general prison population, and if solitary is as cruel as claimed, you don't have very many choices.

Texan99 said...

I'm with both of you. He's like a rabid dog--certainly he can't be let back out on the streets, and even confining him for life runs a risk for the outside population if he ever gets out, or the inside population if he doesn't.

That doesn't mean I don't feel sorry for a very young man who was profoundly failed by his sick family and culture.

Roy Lofquist said...

This is the case that removed my doubts about the death penalty.

dmoelling said...

David Gelernter of Yale who was a victim of the Unibomber (and lived) has remarked that the death penalty is a measure of the seriousness with which we take or responsibility to the community. In a English law state with juries, it is the community affirming this action. I forget the title but there is a new book out about crime in the LA ghettos. The reporter/author notes that only a small percentage of murders are solved even though there are many witnesses. Gang threats to witnesses suppress them quite effectively. Execution for anyone who has a witness harmed seems like a necessary thing to achieve any meaningful change in gang murders.

Sam L. said...

I wonder if that population inside might not decide to abide him for more than a short while. I've read that they don't like child molesters/rapers/killers.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ dmoelling: the book you are referencing is Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. I have only read Steve Sailer's review of it.

@ Sam L: the sexual molesters of children only, not the murderers. My reading is that they are a known vulnerable/not masculine group who can be easily bullied. My dad was one, so I have had incentive to read up on it over the years.

bs king said...

Every time I hear the safety of the community argument in regards to the death penalty, I think of Singapore. They have made drug trafficking/producing a capital offense (along with the usual crimes, rape and illegally discharging a firearm are also on the list) and have become much safer because of it. This idea is offensive to most Americans (Gingrich and Bloomberg have both mentioned it and gotten in trouble), despite the evidence that it would make us safer.

I'd be curious to hear more of your thoughts about what the balancing factors are.

Also, in case anyone's curious, here's the wiki for the Singapore policy. 70% of their executions are drug related:

Texan99 said...

I've just been Project-Gutenberging a book about the Tyburn Gallows and English capital punishment in general. It's really shocking to realize that it wasn't that long ago when the pettiest crime bore the death penalty--theft of a few shillings, even. They didn't really have long-term imprisonment, so it was usually death or nothing, with a bit of branding or flogging and "don't do it again or it's death" thrown in. That changed somewhat when transportation (and perhaps conscription?) became possible.

Of course it's easier for me to think of petty theft as a trivial crime when most of us are not so close to starvation and the loss of some property is an irritation rather than a deadly threat. But I was also surprised to read that a very large proportion of people condemned to the gallows were there for "coin clipping," a damage to the realm's currency that was taken very seriously indeed.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@T99 : Peter Frost and Harry Harpending have a recent paper about the decline of violence in Europe. Frost writes about it at Unz.

The latter two deal with executions, and whether culling 1-2% of the male population that was most criminal had a genetic effect.

Texan99 said...

Those were three very interesting articles, thanks. I recognized in one of them a passage that also was quoted in the Tyburn Oaks book, about the behavior of a handful of men on the scaffold.