Capital Punishment: A Good Idea in Theory, but not in Practice

Like many controversial issues, capital punishment is very polarizing. People on one end of the spectrum are completely supportive of it, and their opponents wholeheartedly reject it. Both sides have many good points. Some people are such reprehensible excuses for human beings that they deserve to die, yet it is still valid to say that no one is righteous enough to make the decision to end someone’s life.

Let’s look at the case for capital punishment. There are many examples of people who cause so much harm to humanity as a whole that keeping them alive is more of a problem than a benefit. People that fall in to this category include Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, and pretty much every serial killer, perpetrator of mass shootings, terrorist, and rapist. If we let them roam freely, they would cause chaos. Even people against executing such people tend to agree that they should be locked in cages for the rest of their natural lives. But why should we stop at imprisoning them? If they rot away in prison, they’re costing taxpayers a whole lot of money, (unless they’re in private prisons, which could fill up a whole other post) and we’re doing the favor of clothing, feeding, and providing shelter for these monsters. They get to live until they die of old age, while their victims, and their families, get no retribution.

Now let’s lay out the standard argument against capital punishment. Yes, there are bad people, and they should be separated from society. But what gives anyone the right to take the life of someone else? Sure, dictators and serial killers can be evil, and show no remorse, but what is the point of killing someone to show that killing is wrong? Isn’t that a double standard? Also, those animals certainly deserve punishment, and can’t prison be worse that death in many cases? For instance, as far as anyone can know without actually going to prison, aren’t rapists regarded with disgust even by hardened criminals? This might not be true, but if prison movies and T.V. shows have any basis in reality, rapists get terrorized and raped in prison. Can anyone say that such acts are not justifiable, or at least unquestionably brutal? Additionally, who decides who lives and who dies? What gives someone the authority to decide to end someone’s life? Are they some combination of a Buddhist monk and a Navy SEAL? No one is infallible, so no one should have the right to judge someone so harshly that it causes their death. Plus, many people who are against capital punishment are pacifists. There are varying degrees of belief in it, but for them, taking someones’s life is never justified.

You may have noticed that both ends of the spectrum make good points, but both also have flaws. For example, opponents of capital punishment argue that even if it costs us money, we should keep monsters alive rather than kill them, which makes us pay to support their right to life. No matter what way you look at the situation, spending hard-earned money on providing terrorists, dictators, serial killers, and rapists with three square meals a day seems wrong. Also, pacifism is an admirable philosophy, but is not pragmatic when taken to the extreme. In self defense situations, sometimes you have to choose between murder, and being killed. Unless you’re some truly enlightened being, which might not even exist, you would probably murder someone in a kill-or-be-killed scenario. Additionally, isn’t ending the life of an evil person arguably more compassionate than sending them to prison to get terrorized, raped, or subjected to solitary confinement? Shouldn’t people who claim to be more gentle and loving go for that option? Another flaw in the case against executing atrocious excuses for human beings is that it doesn’t really matter who decides to put them to death if we all know how guilty they are.

Those are problems with the argument against capital punishment. Now, let’s go through issues with the claims of the proponents of it. I used to support this idea, but I changed my mind when I watched a documentary called Into the Abyss, directed by Werner Herzog. One aspect of this situation that it addresses is the fact that the family members of people who get killed want revenge. This is completely understandable. If someone murdered your mom, dad, brother, sister, son, or daughter, you would want that person to die. But this is a primal instinct, and we shouldn’t allowed to act on it. People on both sides of the fence on this issue paint it as black and white, but it is much more complex than they understand it to be. If everyone had the right to kill someone out of a desire for retribution, the cycle would never end. You could trace murders in your family back to the dawn of humanity. We all have ancestors who were unjustifiably killed. As society became more civilized, violence declined, and most of us haven’t experienced a family member’s murder. But all of us could avenge our ten thousandth great grandparents if we really wanted to. It would just decimate the global population.

One issue that the documentary goes into that I hadn’t thought of in detail before is how well established the guilt of the criminals is. If there was an incorruptible and perfect system that could determine who had committed crimes, and who hadn’t, then capital punishment would be a good idea. But that’s just wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is that many people have been falsely accused of crimes, and executed for them. That is terrifying! We have ended the lives of people who were in some cases, guilty of less severe crimes than those of which they were accused, and in others, were completely innocent. Their true potential was never realized because they were purely victims of circumstance.

Another aspect of the situation that Into the Abyss illuminated for me was the families of the perpetrators. Even if someone is a serial killer or rapist, if they get executed, and they have families, then we’re punishing them, too. The parents, siblings, or children of criminals don’t deserve to go through a loss because their family member committed unbelievable atrocities. If the convict gets put in prison for the rest of his or her life, rather than getting killed, then the family can visit them. It keeps society safe, without causing unnecessary hardship to people who have done nothing wrong.

Yet another angle of this debate that the documentary went into was the people who carry out the executions. Everyone tends to have a hard time with killing, even if we are only injecting a needle into a vein. There are people whose job it is to inject criminals, and watch the life fade from their eyes. This would be hard for anyone who isn’t a complete psychopath or sociopath. State officials interviewed in the movie talk about the fact that some people support capital punishment, but they have never tried killing the murderers themselves. The average person, other than the family of a victim, would not consider actually doing the deed personally. They want to farm it out to prison employees, and even family members of dead loved ones would be incapable of murder in many cases. One problem with this idea that the executors mention is that some states in America kill criminals with extreme frequency. One Texas employee said that one year, he executed 52 people. That’s one person per week! Some people may deserve to die, but can anyone honestly say that 52 people in one state deserve to be killed over the course of one year?

This is why capital punishment is a good idea in theory, but not in practice. Throughout human history, there have been some unquestionably evil people, and they may always exist. Some of those monsters deserve to die, but there is no criminal justice system that is infallible. Since there will likely always be errors in enforcing laws, because they rely on humans, who are imperfect, we should not allow for the possibility of the innocent being executed. Even if criminals are undeniably guilty, if they have families, they don’t deserve to be punished for the terrible acts carried out by their loved ones. If a killer or rapist is completely at fault, and doesn’t have a family, should we be allowed to task people with the job of executing them? Soldiers, police, and people in other careers immersed in violence often exhibit post traumatic stress disorder. Is it reasonable to subject people to this so that animals can get put down? I don’t think so. Even though there are reasonable objections to bring up in regards to lifelong incarceration of monsters who don’t deserve to live, the alternative causes more problems than it solves.

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