Let’s start with something light and fluffy; State mandated execution. Now, I’m from England. We abolished capital punishment in 1998. However, the last actual execution in in England took place a long time before that, back in 1965. The death penalty was formally abolished in ’98 but, in practise, it had fallen completely out of use over 30 years earlier. The average age of an English citizen is 40. Therefore, most people alive in England today have never seen anyone executed.
Even though most people in England have no real experience with capital punishment, there is still a lot of support for it. Around 48% of people support its reintroduction. This is significantly lower, but not drastically lower, than the levels of popular support capital punishment enjoys in the USA, where around 61% of people think it’s a good idea.
These are pretty dismal statistics, so before you get too bummed out, here’s a cat dressed as a pirate.
Look at his little face. He’s loving it! If you make it all the way to the end of this post, there’s a picture of a gerbil dressed as a wizard waiting for you, and I promise it is every bit as adorable as it sounds.
Anyway, I consider capital punishment to be a pretty terrible idea. However, I can understand why people might support it. The Hammurabic maxim of ‘An eye for an eye’ resonates with a lot of people. That murderers should forfeit their own lives just feels like justice. And on a certain level, I agree. I freely admit, if we had some kind of infallible ‘Minority Report’ style means of determining guilt with 100% certainty, I’d probably support capital punishment as well. However, our current justice system is far, far less reliable than that, and here’s where I part company with people who support capital punishment.
Consider: A murder is committed, an investigation conducted, and a suspect apprehended and charged. The investigation is handled by detectives, fallible men and women who are both overworked and underpaid. The case is then brought before a jury, each of whom examines the evidence through their own unique set of biases and preconceptions. Some of these jurors may be racist. Some may be sexist. Some may be completely fair minded, but may have had some personal experience with violent crime which makes it easier for them to believe the worst of people. And some may just be flat out stupid. I’m not exactly Einstein, but I’ve known some seriously dumb motherfuckers in my time. I once worked with a woman who thought men had walked on the moon…and the sun! You’re probably thinking “Bullshit. No-one’s that stupid”. You’re wrong. She was totally that stupid. I know another guy who thinks we never even walked on the moon. He thinks the footage of Neil Armstrong was shot in a studio by Stanley Kubrick and that if you watch The Shining really, really carefully, you can pick out little hints that prove it. Dumb as a fucking post. These people have every bit as much chance of ending up on a jury as you or I.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that if the defendant is too poor to hire a decent lawyer, he’ll probably get a public defender appointed by the State. Now, I’m sure that many, if not most, public defenders are perfectly good lawyers who know their business and want nothing but the best for their clients. However, it’s also true that, like many detectives, many public defenders are overworked and underpaid. Overworked and underpaid lawyers cannot possibly provide as good a defence as lawyers that work for expensive companies and who get to pick and choose their clients.
Finally, you’ve got the Judges. While a jury can recommend a sentence, only a judge can actually pass one. Some judges are elected, and elected judges tend to sentence people to death far more often. I don’t know whether this is because they want to curry favour with pro-death penalty voters, or because pro-death penalty voters are more likely to elect pro-death penalty judges in the first place, but either way the result is the same.
So you’ve got a defendant rushed to trial by detectives who’ve got more work than they can handle, who is too poor to afford decent representation, and who is being tried by a jury 50% of whom will likely be dumber than average and may well be bigoted to boot, and who may well be sentenced by someone whose job depends on being seen to be “tough on crime”. To say there’s room for error would be something of an understatement.
I’ve taken you a long way round to make a short, but important point: In a fallible system mistakes are inevitable. The execution of innocent people is not a “risk”, it’s a mathematical certainty. It can’t not happen. You can put in as many safeguards as you like, but if they’re all managed by tired, overworked, underpaid, potentially biased and inevitably fallible people, eventually they will all fail. It’s only a matter of time.
So that’s why I am opposed to the death penalty. You may have your own reasons, but this is the argument I personally find most persuasive.
But here’s where things get interesting, at least for me. It’s well known that most people who support the death penalty are conservative. It’s also well known that one of the bedrock principles of modern conservatism is “The government which governs least, governs best.” Ronald Reagan once famously said “Government doesn’t solve problems. Government subsidises problems.” He also said “The most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help'”
Here’s what I don’t get: It seems like conservatives have a great deal of trouble trusting the government to do anything right. According to this Pew poll, only 11% of Republicans trust the Federal government. Of course, this could be to do with the fact that the current President is a Democrat, but even when GWB was President, that figure never topped 50%.
However, in spite of all this mistrust; in spite of the naked contempt many Republicans routinely show towards the U.S. government; in spite of the fact Grover Norquist, leader of Americans for Tax Reform, one of America’s largest conservative advocacy groups, has said his ultimate aspiration is to “Shrink government down to the point where I can drown it in a bath tub”; it is conservatives who show the highest level of faith in the capital punishment system. It seems like many conservatives can’t trust the government to do anything right except execute the right people 100% of the time. Indeed, Norquist himself has said:
I am actually a strong supporter of the death penalty for people who murder people. It strikes me as perfectly reasonable, just, and fair.
I don’t think Grover Norquist is a bad person. I may disagree with him on damn near everything, but everything I’ve read about the man suggests he’s doing what he thinks is right. He and I want the same things, we just have very different ideas about how to make those things happen. Plus, he’s named after a muppet, which I find naturally endearing. That said, his position on capital punishment seems to massively contradict everything else he says about government, and it’s a contradiction many conservatives seem to share. Why, if the government is so incompetent, do we trust it to sentence people to death? If the government is so useless, if the government can’t do anything else right, why are so many conservatives so willing to believe it can do this right?
This is why I called this post “Schrödinger’s Government”. It seems like a majority of conservatives believe the government is infallible on this one issue, while being supremely incompetent to handle anything else. The government is perfect and perfectly useless at the same time.
What is the explanation for this? Well, I’m no expert, but I have a theory. I believe that, when it comes to capital punishment, most people are guided by their gut instinct of what feels right. If “An eye for an eye” feels right to you, then you’re more likely to take any negative opinions you might have about the government and put them on hold while you’re talking about capital punishment. Once the conversation switches to tax reform or whatever, then those negative opinions will come back. If, on the other hand, “An eye for an eye” doesn’t feel right, then you’ll do the opposite. A liberal who happily trusts the government in matters of education, tax policy, and welfare reform may suddenly become far more skeptical when discussing capital punishment. I don’t think it’s deliberate. It’s probably unconscious. But I think most people, maybe even everybody, probably does it to a certain extent. I may well do it too, but, if I did, I’d probably need someone else to point it out to me.
As it stands, I think the safest way to approach any issue is on a case by case basis, and use skepticism as a default position on all social and political issues. Whether you’re talking about capital punishment or healthcare reform, your first question should always be “If you’re wrong, how quickly can we undo it?”
And now, after all that, here’s your gerbil. Congratulations. You’ve fucking earned it!