FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Abolishing the Death Penalty Requires Morality

Photograph Source: Lee Honeycutt from Angola, LA, USA – Red Hat Death Chamber – CC BY-SA 2.0

In “How to Convince Americans to Abolish the Death Penalty,” Amherst Professor Austin Sarat asserts “important lessons about how abolitionists can be successful around the country” can be learned from New Hampshire – which just last month became the twenty-first state to abolish capital punishment – including: “[T]he moral argument doesn’t work.”

Acknowledging New Hampshire is hardly the front-line in the fight to abolish the death penalty – because as the Washington Post editorial board observed “[t]he last time the Granite State executed someone, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was midway through his second term” – Sarat nonetheless urges abolitionists to follow New Hampshire’s lead “by shifting the grounds of the debate so as not to be painted as soft on crime or out of touch with mainstream American values.”

This feat can be accomplished, Sarat says, by eschewing the argument “even the most heinous criminals are entitled to be treated with dignity or that there is nothing that anyone can do to forfeit their right to have rights.” Sarat argues this is a “pitfall” because it “puts opponents of the death penalty on the side of society’s most despised,” and “rejects the simple and appealing rationale for capital punishment: retribution.”

While Sarat is correct, high approbation is due New Hampshire abolitionists – for how they effectively “enlisted conservative allies,” and aligned “themselves with the plight of the families of murder victims” (by arguing “the death penalty does not make citizens safer and that it is archaic, costly, discriminatory and violent”) – his call for abolitionists to abandon appeals to morality and human dignity in crusading to end capital punishment, is, with all due respect, unwise, and even worse, immoral.

Because as I’ve urged in essays like “The prospective gassing of human beings in Alabama is an abomination,” Battling the Death Penalty with James Baldwin,” “Life without parole for Hitler,” “Gov. Kasich: ‘Amazing Grace’ Starts With You” and, more recently, in “My Unforgettable College Stabbings:” “If we want to live in a better and safer world together” our response to violence as a caring, conscious society cannot be “random, reactive, or retributive, as it often tends to be.” Sarat’s regretful and regressive capitulation to the fallacious dogma of retribution is, therefore, in my opinion, as disturbing as it is disappointing.

In his book “The Ethics of Punishment” (Faber and Faber Limited 1968), Sir Walter Moberly sagely observed about retribution that “[t]he executioner pays the murderer the compliment of imitation,” and, more keenly: “Much demand for retribution certainly has a shady origin. It springs from the crude animal impulse of the individual or group to retaliate, when hurt, by hurting the hurter. In itself such resentment is neither wise nor good and, in its extreme forms, it is generally condemned as vindictive.”

To advance that it is a “pitfall” to argue “heinous criminals are entitled to be treated with dignity” is to dangerously disregard now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy’s 2011 opinion in Brown v. Plata, confirming “prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” It further ignores Kennedy’s doubling-down on this critical principle, in his 2014 majority opinion in Hall v. Florida, when he wrote: “The Eighth Amendment’s protection of dignity reflects the Nation we have been, the Nation we are, and the Nation we aspire to be.”

The constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment bears no asterisk for crimes committed by “society’s most despised.” And abolitionists should continue to proudly and affirmatively demand the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee of dignity for everyone, while continuing to make reasoned morality-and-dignity-based arguments to end the death penalty – when it makes sense to – notwithstanding whether or not this strategy was employed during the recent abolitionist success in New Hampshire.

Demanding dignity for society’s most despised is the lifeblood of our weakened, chronically underperforming Eighth Amendment. And it is still at the heart of what it means to be an abolitionist.

 

More articles by:

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
November 12, 2019
Nino Pagliccia
Bolivia and Venezuela: Two Countries, But Same Hybrid War
Patrick Cockburn
How Iran-Backed Forces Are Taking Over Iraq
Jonathan Cook
Israel is Silencing the Last Voices Trying to Stop Abuses Against Palestinians
Jim Kavanagh
Trump’s Syrian See-Saw: From Pullout to Pillage
Susan Babbitt
Fidel, Three Years Later
Dean Baker
A Bold Plan to Strengthen and Improve Social Security is What America Needs
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Trump’s Crime Against Humanity
Victor Grossman
The Wall and General Pyrrhus
Yoko Liriano
De Facto Martial Law in the Philippines
Ana Paula Vargas – Vijay Prashad
Lula is Free: Can Socialism Be Restored?
Thomas Knapp
Explainer: No, House Democrats Aren’t Violating Trump’s Rights
Wim Laven
Serve With Honor, Honor Those Who Serve; or Support Trump?
Colin Todhunter
Agrarian Crisis and Malnutrition: GM Agriculture Is Not the Answer
Binoy Kampmark
Walls in the Head: “Ostalgia” and the Berlin Wall Three Decades Later
Akio Tanaka
Response to Pete Dolack Articles on WBAI and Pacifica
Nyla Ali Khan
Bigotry and Ideology in India and Kashmir: the Legacy of the Babri Masjid Mosque
Yves Engler
Canada Backs Coup Against Bolivia’s President
November 11, 2019
Aaron Goings, Brian Barnes, and Roger Snider
Class War Violence: Centralia 1919
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
“Other Than Honorable?” Veterans With “Bad Paper” Seek Long Overdue Benefits
Peter Linebaugh
The Worm in the Apple
Joseph Natoli
In the Looming Shadow of Civil War
Robert Fisk
How the Syrian Democratic Forces Were Suddenly Transformed into “Kurdish Forces”
Patrick Cockburn
David Cameron and the Decline of British Leadership
Naomi Oreskes
The Greatest Scam in History: How the Energy Companies Took Us All
Fred Gardner
Most Iraq and Afghanistan Vets now Regret the Mission
Howard Lisnoff
The Dubious Case of Washing Machines and Student Performance
Nino Pagliccia
The Secret of Cuba’s Success: International Solidarity
Binoy Kampmark
Corporate Mammon: Amazon and the Seattle Council Elections
Kim C. Domenico
To Overthrow Radical Evil, Part II: A Grandmother’s Proposal
Marc Levy
Veterans’ Day: Four Poems
Weekend Edition
November 08, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
The Real Constitutional Crisis: The Constitution
Sarah Shenker
My Friend Was Murdered for Trying to Save the Amazon
Rob Urie
Left is the New Right, or Why Marx Matters
Andrew Levine
What Rises to the Level of Impeachability?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Enter Sondland
Matthew Hoh
And the Armies That Remained Suffer’d: Veterans, Moral Injury and Suicide
Kirkpatrick Sale
2020: The Incipient Bet
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Growing Ecological Civilization in China
Conn Hallinan
Middle East: a Complex Re-alignment
Robert Hunziker
Ignoring Climate Catastrophes
Patrick Howlett-Martin
Repatriate the Children of the Jihad
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
Neoliberalism’s Children Rise Up to Demand Justice in Chile and the World
John McMurtry
From Canada’s Election to Public Action: Beyond the Moral Tumor of Alberta Tar-Sands
Pete Dolack
Pacifica’s WBAI Back on the Air But Fight for Non-Corporate Radio Continues
Steven Krichbaum
Eating the Amazon
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail