Death Penalty Repeal and Human Dignity
When the Connecticut legislature voted to repeal the death penalty back in April and when the governor signed the bill shortly thereafter, there was much to celebrate. Seventeen states are now abolitionist, with five states doing away with the ultimate punishment in the last five years. Several states will likely consider repeal bills before too long, with California set to address its bankrupt system in November, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see additional legislative victories on the immediate horizon.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this victory was achieved with an important trade-off that bears serious discussion. Doing away with the death penalty –- and thus saving the lives of offenders -– required what amounts to the renunciation of the dignity of these same offenders. In listening to the debate in the Connecticut legislature, I couldn’t help noticing that both supporters and opponents of the death penalty could agree that a primary goal of imprisonment is to make criminals suffer.
The question, then, was about whether the death penalty was the most effective means of achieving this suffering or whether criminals might actually suffer more from life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The reason I have this impression is two-fold. First, some legislators specifically said as much, arguing that prison is (and ought to be) a terrible place. Some legislators decided to support repeal because it was made clear to them that a death sentence should really be considered an easy way out for violent offenders. Second, a great part of the repeal debate actually focused on making prison as terrible a place as possible.
In passing an amendment to the repeal bill, legislators made plain their feelings about prison. This amendment created a more restrictive incarceration status for those serving natural life sentences; for all intents and purposes, this is death row without the death. Inmates are housed separately from the general prison population, subjected to frequent searches, and locked down for all but two hours every day.
It’s noteworthy that there’s no way the repeal bill would have passed without this amendment. But it’s even more interesting to look at some of the other amendments that were presented. Even though these ultimately failed, they speak volumes about the way that people think of inmates. One such amendment attempted to ensure that no inmate held in this special incarceration status could ever have his status altered, even for health-related reasons. Another amendment sought to prohibit inmates correspondence privileges, especially via the internet. The speaker who introduced it said, “These people are the most vile … They should not enjoy any of the privileges or pleasures of our lives.” Of course, these inmates don’t actually have internet access. So another speaker expanded on the problem: The fact that someone who isn’t in prison is creating websites for inmates in order to find them pen pals is very troubling to some legislators; they wanted for it to be unlawful for anyone to create a web profile for an inmate in Connecticut.
At the heart of each of these amendments -– and, indeed, so much of the debate about the death penalty all over the country -– is the notion that the offender is completely and utterly devoid of humanity. WIth this in mind, prison isn’t about correction and rehabilitation; it’s just about punishment and revenge. If the death penalty is too expensive, if it risks the execution of an occasional innocent, and if it doesn’t cause all that much suffering, then it can be jettisoned in favor of a punishment that’s cheaper, that we can correct when we err, and that –- if done properly -– might even be worse.
Why are we committed to making things as terrible as possible for some people? Why isn’t it sufficient to remove someone from society, to restrict his liberty, and to keep ourselves safe while continuing to respect the inherent human dignity of the person in question? In large part, it’s because we have convinced ourselves that these people -– those of whom we say they deserve to die -– are not like us in the most decisive respect.
When we say that someone deserves to die, what we’re saying is that an offense has been committed that is so far beyond the range of normal behavior that we cannot even begin to imagine the worldview of the offender and we cannot imagine continuing to occupy the same plane of existence.
But where things get tricky is that we’re taking a pretty serious leap here: we begin by saying that the action is terrible and we end by saying that the actor is terrible. What needs to be considered is whether doing a particular action either a) tells us something about you as a person or b) changes you in some fundamental way as a person. In other words, if I commit a crime, am I telling you something about who I am as a person? Or is it possible for me to fundamentally alter myself through the commission of some particularly bad sort of crime? My sense is that people are keen to believe both of these things about crime.
A) It is convenient to believe that only monsters commit monstrous crimes because it allows us to compartmentalize things very neatly and, in this country, to destroy the monsters. But, of course, Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the banality of evil in her Eichmann in Jerusalem famously poked a hole in this theory about monsters. From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
As far as Arendt could discern, Eichmann came to his willing involvement with the program of genocide through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and judgement. From Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem (where he had been brought after Israeli agents found him in hiding in Argentina), Arendt concluded that far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews which could have accounted psychologically for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann was an utterly innocuous individual. He operated unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects upon those he targeted. The human dimension of these activities were not entertained, so the extermination of the Jews became indistinguishable from any other bureaucratically assigned and discharged responsibility for Eichmann and his cohorts.
Eichmann, on this reading (controversial at the time, but not really any longer), wasn’t some sort of monster, even though his actions were clearly monstrous. If we’re willing to accept this thesis about Eichmann –- who was integral to the planning and execution of one of the worst crimes in human history, and who, interestingly, was hanged in the only instance of capital punishment in Israel –- why are we not willing to consider it with regard to those on death row in the U.S.?
B) It is also convenient to believe that crime fundamentally alters a person, that it strips away one’s humanity (and, thereby, one’s rights). But this requires what I take to be an unusual understanding of personhood, one that relies on a set of societally-approved actions rather than one that’s simply a state of being. You might, of course, argue against the humanity of murderers based on a theory of action-based personhood. But to do so you would need to make a case for the ways in which the actions we take alter our humanity. To look at the inverse, can it be demonstrated that when we do something particularly good, we actually become worthy of certain treatment (and vice versa)? I suspect not.
Even if it could be demonstrated -– and I await such a demonstration -– this idea stands in stark contrast to everything that we claim to believe about human rights. After all, at the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the statement that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” We’re born with human rights, we don’t have to do anything good to be worthy of them, and we can’t do anything so bad that we forfeit them. It also stands in contrast to our own theories of crime and punishment, since not everyone who does something terrible is executed or placed in the sort of restrictive environment envisioned by the Connecticut legislation. Indeed, almost all of the violent criminals who enter the American penal system are later released from it; if we truly held the belief that they became less human as a consequence of their actions, do we also believe that their time in prison restores their humanity somehow? I suspect that we don’t. But, if we did, why wouldn’t this also apply to those who commit murder and end up on death row or in conditions that mimic it?
The long and the short of it is this: It would be easier for us if there were evil people in the world, rather than normal people who do evil things. It would validate our desire to punish and to avenge. But this is a fiction, one that keeps us clinging to our occasional use of the death penalty or, in the case of Connecticut, to the throw-away-the-key mentality that rests on denying the humanity of the offender.