Talking About Killing

The execution of Troy Davis on Wednesday unleashed a wave of anti-death-penalty articles (I’ll link to the best ones I found as they become relevant), and a few defenses of capital punishment (or at least of the process that found Troy Davis guilty). Some even suggested that this case would be a turning point in Americans’ support for the death penalty.

I’ve got my doubts about that, because the two sides are still talking past each other — arguing with straw men rather than saying anything that might turn an opponent around. The real issues remain in a visceral realm where they can’t be discussed because they aren’t fully verbalized.

You can tell that people are talking past each other when they affirm the same principles, but imagine that the other side is denying those principles. A productive discussion can’t even get started until those agreements are recognized. Then the real disagreements stand out rather than remaining unspoken in the background.

Here are some principles held by death-penalty advocates and opponents alike:

  • Innocent life should be protected.
  • The state should affirm the value and dignity of life, not undermine it.
  • Actions should have consequences, and similar actions should have similar consequences.
  • Murder is a horrific crime in general, and many specific murders are acts of incredible inhumanity.
  • The people who loved the victim deserve our compassion.

On either side, if the bulk of your argument emphasizes one of these general claims, you’re probably just talking to yourself. No one disagrees with you. The disagreement is about where those principles lead.

Some of the surface-level disagreements concern questions that could be resolved by evidence, if anybody could gather and evaluate the evidence fairly. The biggest ones are to what extent the death penalty deters future murders, how many innocent people get convicted, and the roles that race and class play in determining who gets executed.

But the root disagreements, the ones that cause everyone to misrepresent evidence and project straw men onto each other, are very basic:

  • We disagree on the continuing worth of an ancient principle of justice: Suffering pays for suffering and blood pays for blood. 
  • We disagree on how to weigh the risk of punishing the innocent against the risk of insufficiently punishing the guilty.

Our arguments go round and round because these questions are not amenable to logic or evidence, no matter how much both sides wish they were.

Recognizing the agreements. A great deal of pro-death-penalty energy is devoted to horror stories about murders, as if death-penalty opponents believe that murderers are basically decent people who deserve our sympathy. (If somebody somewhere believes that, I haven’t met them.)

Similarly, death penalty advocates agree in principle that innocent people should not be convicted and that execution should not depend on the race or class of either the murderer or the victim. But they disagree about how perfectible the process is and how to balance those risks against the risk that the guilty will be insufficiently punished.

The real difficulties come with the principles that pull both ways. How should the state affirm the dignity and value of life? Those who believe blood-pays-for-blood think that not killing the murderer devalues the life of the victim. (And they project that devaluation onto DP-opponents).

But DP-opponents believe that life is affirmed at the extremes: Even the murderer should not be intentionally killed by the state; that’s how valuable life is.

Similarly, how should we protect the innocent? By deterring future murderers with the threat of death, DP-advocates say. By not executing any innocent people, DP-opponents counter.

A hidden agreement. One false assumption — that death is the worst punishment we can inflict — sneaks into the discussion and hides an area of agreement by producing a false either/or: We either should or shouldn’t inflict the worst possible punishment on murderers.

In fact, no current execution method approaches the worst possible. We could flay the murderer alive, for example, or let him be eaten slowly by rats.

Many of the same arguments would apply: The murder-victim’s family might take satisfaction in a more gruesome execution, and it might be a better deterrent than, say, lethal injection. But who advocates these more extreme punishments? Overwhelmingly, both sides agree that we should not inflict the worst punishment possible.

Evidence-based disagreements. Because we all want to be provably right, both sides exaggerate their evidence-based points. It would help if we could all admit two things:

  • Truly innocent people are a very small fraction of those executed. Even in the Davis case, we don’t know he was innocent; we’re just not sure he was guilty.
  • If the death penalty has a deterrent effect, it’s tiny. If deterrence worked, Texas wouldn’t lead the nation in executions year after year.

If you want to see a real deterrence effect, look at interceptions in football. It’s been 29 years since the same player led the NFL in interceptions two years in a row, and I don’t think three years in a row has ever been done. After you intercept a few passes, quarterbacks stop throwing in your direction. But Texans never stop committing murders.

Deep disagreement: weighing our mistakes. Every human process will make mistakes. (Andrew Cohen’s Atlantic article shows just how fallibly human our capital-punishment process is. Repeated attempts to fix it led Justice Harry Blackmun to write, “From this day forward, I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”) One of the most basic liberal/conservative differences is whether you want to err on the side of mercy or strictness. A liberal would rather feed ten moochers than turn away someone genuinely in need. A conservative would do the reverse.

This issue shows up all over: unemployment payments to people who might be able to find jobs, torturing those who are probably terrorists, the number of civilian deaths that are acceptable “collateral damage” in war, and so on. The proper balance is a deep intuition, not a conclusion based on logic or evidence.

This is why the Davis case will not turn be a turning point. It may be obvious to DP-opponents that a single execution of an innocent man invalidates the whole capital-punishment process. But DP-advocates can look squarely at that possibility and remain unconvinced.

Deep disagreement: Only blood pays for blood. Scales became a symbol of justice from crimes of property: If a measure of grain was taken from you, you got the same measure back; that was justice. Metaphorically, this got extended to crimes of violence — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Justice means balancing the scales.

This principle is so old that many people don’t realize it’s a metaphor. Killing the killer does not balance anything literal. Nonetheless, many Americans feel deep down that justice has been circumvented if a murderer lives. He got off cheap, or perhaps the victim’s life was valued cheaply. Any talk about “victim’s rights” (or the rights of the family, which stand proxy for the victim) or any comparison between the murderer and his victim (“how much compassion did he have for my daughter?”) is implicitly invoking the scales-of-justice metaphor.

This issue is complicated by the dogmatic needs of fundamentalist Christianity. If blood isn’t a necessary payment, then what was the crucifixion about? Deep down, fundamentalists know that if they give in on the death penalty, their whole religion is undermined.

Strategy. When a disagreement is not amenable to evidence or logic, evidence and logic become distractions. So there’s no point arguing about the statistics of deterrence or racial imbalance if the root disagreement is whether blood is necessary to pay for blood.

When you reach that point, a DP-opponent really has only two options. If you are comfortable with the religious or mythological language the other person thinks in, you can sometimes get your point across that way. (Example: Even though God told Cain “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground“, God did not answer that cry by killing Cain. Quite the opposite, God put a mark on Cain to prevent anyone else from killing him. It was the original example of executive clemency.)

But there is an alternative: Simply being in the presence of an alternate moral vision can change a person, particularly someone who has never taken seriously that another view is possible. To employ this strategy, you have to shed the projections DP-advocates throw at you, and refuse to be distracted by issues-of-fact that won’t change anybody’s mind. Eventually you need to make clear that you see what the other person sees, but you just don’t make the same judgment: Blood does not pay for blood. The scales of justice are a metaphor; we have a choice about whether to apply it.

Letting someone else see the example of your alternative moral vision may not be as satisfying as crushing them in an argument about facts or logic. But in the long run it may be more effective.

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  • Faithin5  On September 26, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    “A liberal would rather feed ten moochers than turn away someone genuinely in need. A conservative would do the reverse.” As a Christian & conservative, this one comment pretty much sums up your false view of me. In the last year alone, I have given the only cash I had to homeless men & women countless times.
    I have taken in 2 newly released prisoners,
    providing jobs, food, & a free place to stay. 10%
    of my income goes to my church, where aiding those in our community is the mission. However, there is more accountability & personal contact there than any welfare, unemployment, or government office, so that may not be as attractive for your common “moocher”. I find it appalling that we, as good citizens of this country, aren’t trusted to help in our own communities, but are forced by government to hand over our hard-earned dollars so government can make our choices for us.

    • Allison  On September 26, 2011 at 3:08 pm

      You disagree with Doug’s characterization that you’d rather turn away one person who is genuinely in need than feed ten moochers. But then you say that you would rather help the needy through your church than through government, whose programs can be more widespread at the risk of mooching, because you think it cuts down on moochers. You would rather spend your money in your own community, where you can watch to make sure that moochers aren’t getting your help. I put forth that this is exactly the characterization that Doug is making.

    • Don Bishop  On September 26, 2011 at 9:59 pm

      Your contributions and your churches are valuable. I belong to a liberal church Unitarian Universalist) and we, also provide substantial help to needy persons, at home and in other countries. We can all pay attention to Jesus’ teachings, whether we’re christian or not. Unfortunately, many people don’t take the same view. Many give almost nothing, some only give to fashionable organizations (these contributions are important). Charity can’t do the job alone. Government has an essential role.

      By the way, liberals are forced to hand over their hard-earned dollars (yes, liberals actually pay taxes) so government can fight unnecessary wars. The money given to “moochers” is a tiny fraction of the billions that just disappeared in Iraq.

  • Kim Cooper  On September 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Thanks Doug, for, again, making the point that there is a big difference between winning the argument and converting the person you’re talking to.
    Most people have little ability to see things from someone else’s perspective, and that’s a central problem when trying to change someone’s perspective.

  • Don Bishop  On September 26, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    One thing that I believe both sides should agree on, is that people on trial for serious crimes should have competent representation, with adequate resources to build a defense. We can’t say “well, we’re not going to execute him, so we don’t need to worry about a just trial” The Masters case in Colorado is an example — I believe he was convicted of murder because he was a weird kid. Some in the prosecution are facing criminal charges because of the conduct of the case.

  • Kim Cooper  On September 27, 2011 at 1:35 am

    The emails your site sends me are coming without content except a light blue screen. there was no other way the contact you that I could find.

    • weeklysift  On October 1, 2011 at 7:04 am

      I’ll look into it. Foolishly, I’ve never subscribed to my own blog, so I don’t notice this stuff.

  • Faithin5  On September 27, 2011 at 10:18 am

     “The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals. And of course there is no need to explain and prove the degree of American support for Israel. The creation of Israel is a crime which must be erased. Each and every person whose hands have become polluted in the contribution towards this crime must pay its price, and pay for it heavily.” -Bin Laden

    Anyone who studies the Bible knows the Truth &
    also knows the value of Israel. This is not & will never be an unnecessary war. Our government
    exists for protection, clean roadways & water,
    etc. Citizens exist because God created them & called them to live “Christ-like” within their homes & communities. If this were happening, there would be no need for government programs or this article.

    • weeklysift  On October 1, 2011 at 7:17 am

      Thanks for providing a perspective we don’t usually see at the Weekly Sift. If you keep commenting, undoubtedly I and many of the other commenters will often disagree with you. Please don’t take that to mean that you’re not welcome.


  • By leer más aquí on June 21, 2015 at 4:52 pm

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    Talking About Killing | The Weekly Sift

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