The most extraordinary sound not heard in the land is the sound of the electric chair. It is not heard because it has become so common. The only way an execution makes news any more is if the condemned represents a first. Last November it was Velma Barfield, first grandmother (since the death penalty was revived in 1977). Then in March, John Young, first juvenile.
If the next condemned is not a 30- game winner, or otherwise distinguished, you won't hear about it. (You didn't hear about Marvin Francois, the most recently executed. He had merely killed six people.) Executions have become routine, background noise to the war on crime. That fact may not be news, but it is a scandal.
According to the polls, a majority of Americans support capital punishment. Many d so because of the death penalty's deterrent effect. That idea has a nice intuitive ring to it. You would think that the fear of death would stop people from killing. Unfortunately, the law is trying to deter not you or me, but killers. And, not surprisingly, they seem to value life -- their lives, too -- somewhat less than the rest of us.
Deterrence cannot be assumed. It must be proved. And the proof is just not there. Compare abolition and death-penalty states (Michigan and adjacent Ohio and Indiana, for example), and there is no difference in the murder rates. Cross-country comparisons are even more telling. Britain, with no death penalty, has a murder rate one- ninth that of the United States.
You say one can't compare the two because they are vastly different in culture, demography, etc. Precisely. Culture, gun availability, history, are the critical factors, not the noose. As sociologist James Q. Wilson concludes in an exhaustive review, "There is no systematic, accepted evidence (that) the risk of execution has a demonstrable effect on the murder rate."
Since the deterrence argument, being empirical, suffers from the disability of not being supported by the evidence, the inevitable resort is to justice. Even "if it could be absolutely determined that there was no deterrent factor," says William F. Buckley Jr., "I'd still be in favor of capital punishment." As that tireless champion of capital punishment, Ed Koch, explains, "any other form of punishment would be inadequate and, therefore, unjust." For murder, death is the only just penalty. It fits the crime.
But what is fittedness? In some cultures it is thought fit punishment for thievery to cut off hands. In the West, we deem that uncivilized. This is not just an epithet. It expresses an underlying belief in a kind of historical moral progress: societies mature -- become more civilized -- and as they do they abandon primitive practices, such as limb cutting or slavery.
The real argument against capital punishment has to do with civilization. Not principle. It is hard to argue that in principle the state has no right to take life, when states clearly do in times of danger. In war, the state -- the community in action -- has all kinds of prerogatives with life, life far more innocent than that of a killer.
Conscription, for example, forcibly exposes one's own blameless men to death; and combat is designed to kill as many of the others as possible. And yet, except for the odd, suicidal pacifist, most of us have no difficulty (given the right war) accepting either notion.
The issue cannot be whether the state may kill, but when. In extremis, the state may take life in self-defense, as it were. Hence the strongest argument against capital punishment: in civil society that justification simply does not exist. We do not live at the edge of disintegration and chaos.
In the end, capital punishment is simply unnecessary. In societies looking into the abyss, one might justify a few exemplary hangings. But our hangings are not even exemplary. They save no one. They serve vengeance only.
Is vengeance not a legitimate function of government? Conservatives, who usually deplore government's taking on psychotherapeutic social functions (of which vengeance is merely the bloodiest), should be the last to make this case. Governments are established for other reasons, order being the foremost among them. It is the mark of civilized government that it seek to secure order at the lowest possible level of violence. The state should choose the minimum of official brutality that it can get away with and still preserve the peace.
Brutality, from the billy club to the stun gun, will no doubt always be with us. The death penalty need not be. It should not be. There is no sign that the 13 American states and all the advanced countries (the term is apt) that outlaw it are engulfed in murder and civil disorder. Once it is demonstrated that one can live without the death penalty, the should becomes automatic. Or what's civilization for?