Death Penalty

I first saw America as she should first be seen by a foreigner: from the deck of a ship approaching New York harbour. We had passed the Nantucket Lightship in the night watches, and now at dawn could see the island of Manhattan, dominated by the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. We picked up the harbour pilot and steamed slowly in up the East River, past Governors Island and nudged into our berth at Brooklyn Pier 6.

This was in the early 80’s, and New York was a grubby, rowdy, bustling, crowded place of which I, as a young African, stood in awe. When I wasn’t on cargo watches I would ride the subways and buses, taking in the sights; sometimes I would stop off at one of the ubiquitous Irish pubs for a beer, and would chat to the locals, who—for some reason or another—would always ask whether or not I had been in Florida.

I spent the next year or two on the East coast liner trade: New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newport News (beware of submarines), Charleston, Savannah, Miami, Mobile, New Orleans (occasionally Baton Rouge), Houston. During this time I conceived a real affection for the American people, who were invariably friendly and courteous; and apart from a curious ignorance of the events—or even the geography—of the rest of the world, they seemed sophisticated enough to value their freedoms and to take pride in the achievements of their nation. They are mostly liberal, and think quite deeply about morality and the constituent parts necessary to the maintenance of a just society. Which brings me to the point of this post.

How can a nation such as the United States find herself so far behind the curve when it comes it comes to the death penalty? All other modern democracies have long since abolished this barbarous form of punishment, and those countries which continue to apply it are hardly ones which anyone impartial would call enlightened.

If the saying “you can know a man by the company he keeps” applied to nations, would we get entirely the wrong impression of America? Here is a list of nations whose company America keeps:–

Korea (North)
Saudi Arabia

This is a list, in alphabetical order, of the countries that executed more than 100 people each in the five years from 2007-2011.[1]

There are many reasons why the more enlightened nations have abolished the ultimate sanction: it has not been shown to be an effective deterrent to violent crime; it is almost impossible to apply fairly; and, most importantly, justice systems are manned by human beings who make mistakes, and in this age most people find repugnant the notion of the state taking the life of one who is innocent of the crime of which he is accused.

Is this an issue in the U.S.A.? I don’t see much in the media, and those websites which are anti capital punishment don’t seem to have a large following. I almost get the impression that abolitionists are regarded as a fringe group, not to be taken too seriously. I think if I were an American, I would be so ashamed of what my nation was doing that I would make a high priority of ensuring that my government ceased this savage practice.


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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

7 Responses to Death Penalty

  1. Beechmount says:

    The United States (America includes many more countries) have always had a “A tooth for a tooth” mentality when it comes to criminal justice. Most of the states no longer have the death penalty, but that does not excuse the states that have. Take a look at the statistics for executions in Texas. Is not perhaps life imprisonment at hard labour a much worse form of punishment than death? Of the countries you claim the United States keep company with, I must defend the US by saying that they are not an exclusivity when it comes to that. Britain, Germany, France, Russia- you name them, they all cater to countries that in the opinion of many do not deserve it. Oil seems to have a lot to do with it and the sale of weapons-big business- is right behind it. China will go to bed with any country that offers one, as long as it is good business or it gives them control over resources or affords some economic or political advantage. The United States claim to be “The land of freedom and democracy.” I’m happy to report they don’t hold a monopoly on this concept either.

    • The U.S.–I’m aware that America includes more countries, but the context makes clear that I’m using it as shorthand for the U.S.A.–has “a tooth-for-tooth” mentality when it comes to criminal justice because it is still stuck in the middle ages with the majority of Americans (U.S.Ayans?) believing in Old Testament justice, which may have been appropriate in the days of Moses (assuming that he actually existed), but which is certainly not appropriate now, in the 21st century, when we have acquired the knowledge necessary to make better judgements than were possible then.

      When I say the U.S. ‘keeps company’ with the rabid nations I listed, I meant in terms of the wholesale murder of its own citizens by the state, and not in any other respect.

  2. Con-Tester says:

    What isn’t clear in this issue is whether any given country or state’s people, as a whole, are for or against capital punishment. Not that this should decide the morality of, and practical considerations surrounding, the death penalty. Having the death penalty (or not) is sometimes defended as being “the will of the people”, which is neither a good argument (for or against), nor one that is crisply defined. What if the split in a survey or referendum is 52:48 or even 80:20?

    I think it’s a question that’s best decided by judicious application of rational ethics, heavily informed by various scientific findings and relevant empirical data. On that basis, the death penalty is becoming ever less defensible.

    • The death penalty is one of those issues where leaders are expected to exercise actual leadership and not bend before the populist will. This was done in most countries that have abolished the death penalty–abolition was initially against public opinion, which later came into line. If one were to conduct a poll in the U.K. for instance (actually I’m sure someone has conducted such polls, but I’m too lazy to look for them), one would find that the majority of the population would be against the reintroduction of the death penalty. Had you conducted the same poll in, say, 1965, you would find that most were in favour of the death penalty.

      Interesting factoid: the death penalty was only abolished fully in the U.K. in 1998, although no one had been strung up since, I think, 1964.

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  5. malmou says:

    Yeah. Why not appeal to American love of money and hatred of taxation? It costs far more to keep someone on Death Row for years of psychological torture than if you gave them a straight life sentence.

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