We all know the usual arguments against the death penalty. Let’s review some of the more popular ones. None can dispute that capital punishment is arbitrary and deeply biased against people of color and the poor. There is also no remediation from the death penalty. The innocent sometimes die, and their innocence is all too often discovered too late. It’s an ugly remedy in law that appeals to the ugliest side of human nature. That it costs more to execute a man (and it’s usually men) than it does to jail him for life ought to remain outside a discussion of the serious relative demerits of capital punishment. After a 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut for the wealthy, clearly money is no problem for the mandarins of American justice. But the most specious argument against remains the notion that it’s hypocritical to punish murder by committing murder. The American justice system also imprisons people for false imprisonment and fines people for theft.
But I think the single most truly compelling argument against the application of the death penalty is that it’s exactly what totalitarian governments do. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s what totalitarian governments must do if they wish to continue to be worthy of the name, and what democratic governments must avoid if they wish to continue to be worthy of the name. If you begin with the Jeffersonian ideal of government that, “The happiness and prosperity of our citizens… is the only legitimate object of government and the first duty of governors,” and carry it to its opposite logical extreme, it is there that you will find the death penalty and despotism. Dictators and despots and authoritarians delight in oppression, and the final expression of that idea is the right of the state to take away the lives of its citizens.
William Barr is an example of someone for whom the death penalty is perfectly suited. No hypocrisy is complete without it, and when you consider that Barr is a corrupt defender of a deeply corrupt and dysfunctional despotic regime, his boastful delight at putting to an end the lives of five people by reviving the practice of federal executions is the natural conclusion of his own hypocritical criminality. If Barr should have his way the executions will occur around the Christmas holidays, delighting Trump’s cruel, bloodthirsty base as they celebrate the traditional birthday of the “Prince of Peace.”
Fortunately Barr is unlikely to have his way, and there will be many a delay en route to the needle, thanks to the good offices of the ACLU, and others. But Barr still deserves full credit for trying, and by “credit” I of course mean blame. This chilling warm up is the first stage in what will undoubtedly become a positively pornographic orgy of state-sanctioned killing by the despicable Trump regime. Trump’s bloodthirsty base must be appeased.
As I have said, the death penalty is what despots do. We know it’s an everyday practice in Saudi Arabia and North Korea and Iran and, worse than all combined, China. It is virtually unknown in world democracies outside of the United States. That is no accident, because the death penalty has no place in forward-thinking, evolved societies. It is a barbaric relic of a bloody past and should remain there.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.