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Capital Punishment’s Moral Support: Why California Voters Couldn’t Kill Death

Whether or not you voted to abolish California’s death penalty on Tuesday, you’re probably aware of the financial argument against it. It’s unquestionable that the death penalty, in its current form, is poorly administered and in need of reform.

When you compare the number of inmates sitting on death row to the number that have actually been executed in the last 30 years, you get a staggeringly lopsided ratio. Inmates sit on death row long past their scheduled execution dates, marching around the Penrose steps of an appallingly bureaucratic appeals process while siphoning millions out of the state budget. It’s a more or less inarguable point that the system of capital punishment is broken. As Bill Clinton might say, it’s simple “arithmetic.”

Despite this, there remains a significant majority of voters who struck down Proposition 34 this Tuesday, and will likely strike down any similar measures in the near and distant future. That’s because the financial argument, while 100 percent valid in and of itself, represents only half of a larger debate. It does not account for the moral implications of capital punishment, and for many voters, these implications take precedence.

The last time the state of California carried out an execution was 2006. I remember hearing the report on the radio while my dad drove me home from school. Clarence Ray Allen had been convicted of murder and then contracted the murders of three more people from the confines of his prison cell; he would be executed at midnight.

I remember looking out the car window and trying to imagine that I was Allen, my dad was a prison guard and instead of driving home for dinner, we were driving to the site of my execution. How would the world look to a person who wouldn’t be in it tomorrow? I clenched my fists and ground my teeth, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t put myself in Allen’s shoes. I just couldn’t empathize.

It’s not that I lacked imagination, or an adequate comprehension of death. I realized the gravity of Allen’s situation as well as I do six years later, in retrospect. What made it so hard for me to empathize with this man was the fact that he was responsible for the deaths of four people. He was a murderer, and I was not. It was a fundamental, irreconcilable difference in our natures, and it was for this difference that he would soon be put to death while I would be asleep in the comfort of my home.

This was not particularly disturbing to me. What disturbed me was the fact that Allen had committed the murders in the first place and that there were people on death row who had committed crimes even more heinous and gruesome than his.

I believed, as I still do, that capital offenses are appropriately named, that to rape and sodomize a victim before, during or after killing them constitutes an innate lack of humanity and warrants the offender’s permanent removal from society.

There are those who would argue this is merely fighting “fire with fire,” taking an “eye for an eye,” or otherwise committing an egregious act of hypocrisy. I would contest that the process of lethal injection is a far more humane, delicate and respectful method of execution than the rape, dismemberment or calculated torture these murderers dealt their victims. Capital punishment is administered for the nature of a crime, and by comparison, is very tame.

Others would argue that the reality of capital punishment does not deter capital offense; that a life sentence in prison without parole is a formidable substitute to discourage potential offenders. This is an extremely hypothetical point, but one with which Niccolò Machiavelli would probably disagree.

Life in prison threatens the quality of a person’s life, but it does not pose a direct threat to life itself. This is an important distinction to make, especially in light of humanity’s most basic instinct for survival. Our core psychological makeup suggests that a society without ultimatums is prone to serious transgression.

This isn’t to say we should celebrate our executions. We shouldn’t stand up and applaud death, as dozens of audience members did when Texas Governor Rick Perry’s prolific record of capital punishment was announced during a Republican primary debate. This is a misguided approach that trades the cause of justice for bloodlust.

What we need to do is stop confusing the punishment for the crime. Society is not at fault for putting murderers to death; it’s at fault for producing murderers in the first place. Our concerted efforts should go towards eliminating the problem, not the solution.

It’s true that the system of capital punishment is broken. But until we reform it — until we rein back the bureaucracy, tidy up the appeals process and administrate justice swiftly and efficiently — it will continue to burden taxpayers. Capital punishment is founded on morality, not economics, and it is in accordance with morality that so many of us support it.

Mark Strong swears that he is actually a great empathizer.




Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are submitted primarily by students.

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Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB.
Opinions are submitted primarily by students.


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One Response to Capital Punishment’s Moral Support: Why California Voters Couldn’t Kill Death

  1. Jason Garshfield

    November 11, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    Shame on California, I say. There are a lot of reasons to end the death penalty – it costs a lot of money, which would be better spent actually catching criminals, and we might execute an innocent person (for instance, Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas). But none of those reasons are why I’m against the death penalty. I’m against it because it’s evil.

    Yes, it’s hard to empathize with somebody who takes another person’s life. When somebody does something especially horrible (like, say, what James Holmes did in Colorado last summer) you don’t want to get teary-eyed over the value of their life. You want to slowly kill them and enjoy doing so. This is understandable. But this isn’t a civilized urge. This is a savage urge. Until we can suppress this primeval desire for harsh justice, we’ll never be a truly civilized society.

    In relation to the death penalty as a deterrent, the facts say otherwise. Criminals believe they’re above the law, or else are too caught up in a moment of anger to care about the consequences. People who aren’t frightened into morality by the threat of a life spent in a cage won’t be frightened by the threat of death, either.

    Also, isn’t there a slippery slope argument to be made? Isn’t there something a tiny bit scary, especially to all the supposedly “small government” conservatives out there, about the state having the power to kill people? For the last four years, people have been telling us that Obamacare will put us on an inevitable road to Stalinism. If this crazy argument can be made, then I insist that when talking about the death penalty we have to assume that it will put us on an inevitable road to Nazism. (Now just wait for the Republican Party to nominate a serial killer for president, and start talking about his great success in the private sector, and how he’ll stand up to the government takeover of the murder business…) Seriously, though, lethal injection does not have a glorious history. It was first used by the Nazis to destroy “life unworthy of life.” If that isn’t a little scarier than Obamacare, read it again.

    Once again, we’re the only nation in the world where anyone is having this debate. No other developed country, even ones like England with a bloody history of witch burnings, allows execution anymore. Once again, America has failed to lead the world. So, rather than immediately rectify the problem, we’re throwing a tantrum, kicking the Monopoly board over, giving an infantile declaration of “Slowest one wins!” and patting ourselves on the back and calling it “American exceptionalism.” That’s a pretty defeatist attitude for a nation that supposedly believes in success… And there’s another comparison to be drawn to the health care debate here: every other country in the developed world has some sort of nationalized health care system, and none of them have descended into socialism. But when it comes to the death penalty, we’re sharing this savage tradition with such glorious nations as Cuba, Iran, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia… examples to us all, I’m sure.

    We have a long way to go before our justice system is anywhere near what it should be. Personally, I’d like to see a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and humane and gentle prisons similar to those found in Norway. Getting rid of the death penalty in California would have set a model for the nation, and would have been an excellent first step towards having that kind of humane justice. Proposition 34 failed, because we couldn’t overcome our savage instincts. But I disagree that 34 lost because of the moral argument. The Yes on 34 folks didn’t spend enough time on the moral argument. If they had, they would have won. “But it’ll save money” is a diversion, and a bad one at that. “Killing is wrong” is what we need to be saying. If they had been morally brave, Yes on 34 campaigners could have helped this state make a bold step forward in civilization and forgiveness…