May 13, 2008

"Liberals, of all people, should avoid making the passive/active distinction [and] support the death penalty..."

... if it's really true — and it seems to be — that executions save lives. Jac explains:
If you're a liberal (in the sense in which "liberal" is used in modern-day America -- as Barack Obama put it, someone whose views on most issues "correspond more closely to the editorial pages of the New York Times than those of the Wall Street Journal"), then you can't believe that an omission -- a failure to act -- is morally excusable simply on the grounds of "Hey, I wasn't really 'doing' anything."

The thing is, if omissions were excusable, then there would be no moral force to drive liberal policies. If the government isn't culpable for the problems it fails to solve -- the things it lets happen -- then it doesn't make sense to make an impassioned moral appeal that the government must implement such-and-such a policy to end poverty, protect our children from pollution, etc. If you thought the government could be excused for the things it passively allows to occur with a glib dismissal -- "Look, that may be unfortunate, but it's not the government's responsibility" -- then you'd be a conservative, not a liberal.

121 comments:

Mortimer Brezny said...

Well. But you can be a liberal who believes the government simply doesn't have the authority to do certain things. In that case, you wish American government were like Swedish government, but you recognize that it isn't and won't be without massive constitutional alterations.

And, frankly, being against the death penalty is not really a liberal position. If you think the government should have more power over our lives to determine the course of events and drive social change, there is no reason it shouldn't take the lives of the socially disutile. There is really little difference between support of the death penalty and support of euthanasia, late term abortion, and collective gun rights. Because in each case you are supporting death: killing criminals, the elderly, the infantile, and the innocent in their homes when armed burglars invade.

paul a'barge said...

Dead criminals do not re-offend.

Stack them like cord wood.

rhhardin said...

There's a time honored tradition of just letting people die.

The best you can hope for is feeling that you ought to help. This in fact brings in huge TV ratings.

Independent George said...

It's an interesting argument, not least of all because I came to the opposite conclusion indepenently; I'm a nominal conservative who has flip-flopped his way into opposing the death penalty. Whatever the utilitarian benefits of the death penalty, I've come to view it as a matter of individual rights vs the collective. The collective benefit does not give the state the ability to deprive an individual of his right to life.

Zeb Quinn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zeb Quinn said...

someone whose views on most issues "correspond more closely to the editorial pages of the New York Times than those of the Wall Street Journal"

Speaking of audacity, I'm hoping he has the audacity to repeat that line out loud for everyone to hear in the general campaign.

Luke Blanshard said...

He said: "If you thought the government could be excused for the things it passively allows to occur with a glib dismissal -- "Look, that may be unfortunate, but it's not the government's responsibility" -- then you'd be a conservative, not a liberal."

This is a classic liberal's caricature of conservatives. The actual conservative approach is more like "Look, that is unfortunate, but getting the government involved is going to make it ten times worse."

John Althouse Cohen said...

This is a classic liberal's caricature of conservatives. The actual conservative approach is more like "Look, that is unfortunate, but getting the government involved is going to make it ten times worse."

See the footnote at the end of the linked blog post, where I specifically acknowledged this possibility. I didn't intend to say that all conservatives use the passive/active distinction, just that no liberals should do so, while some conservatives might.

Freder Frederson said...

What a stupid argument. None of the good arguments against the death penalty have anything to do with the government's failure to act.

Let's see--The death penalty is bad because it is disproportionality used against the poor and those who can't afford a decent lawyer.

The death penalty is bad because it is immoral on its face. (Actually not necessarily a liberal position but the official position of the Catholic Church)

The death penalty is bad because our justice system is far from perfect and we could end up (and probably have) executing innocent people. (This argument is especially applicable in Obama's home state of Illinois)

It is cheaper to keep people in jail for life than execute them.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Mortimer Brezny said...
There is really little difference between support of the death penalty and support of euthanasia, late term abortion, and collective gun rights.


I have to contend that ther is one difference in these 4 cases: The death penalty is imposed on a duly convicted adult; not an innocent child, a disable adult, or another individual who has not violated societies' rules.

Freder Frederson said...

For all these brilliant economists who claim they know how to do statistics and account for other factors, they seem to have forgotten about the inherent error in their small sample size.

MadisonMan said...

It's difficult to dispel a belief with a fact. Religion is a belief, and all the facts in the world haven't stopped religion.

Most people believe the Death Penalty is right (or wrong) and facts to the contrary will not change their mind.

Mortimer Brezny said...

The death penalty is imposed on a duly convicted adult; not an innocent child, a disable adult, or another individual who has not violated societies' rules.

That's actually irrelevant. You simply don't have to kill convicts to punish them.

Palladian said...

"Let's see--The death penalty is bad because it is disproportionality used against the poor and those who can't afford a decent lawyer."

Because they're the ones who tend to commit capital crimes, perhaps?

Palladian said...

"That's actually irrelevant. You simply don't have to kill convicts to punish them."

Forget the punishment aspect of the death penalty, what of the benefits to society? Executing a dangerous criminal protects society from their menace and also saves society a lot of money. Or does it? Since 'liberals' tend to support abortion rights, they must value utilitarianism over the moral value of life, so from a utilitarian perspective, the death penalty could be justified easily.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Meaning that you do have to kill the infirm, the unborn and the unarmed to punish them for their innocence?

I may agree that convicts can be punished without the death penalty, but would that offer the needed closure both society and the victims' family need?

There is a psychological finiteness to an execution that ends the suffering for the victims' kin that is hard to come by any other way.

Mortimer Brezny said...

Since 'liberals' tend to support abortion rights, they must value utilitarianism over the moral value of life, so from a utilitarian perspective, the death penalty could be justified easily.

Of course. That liberals are utilitarians, but not moralists, is implicit in my first comment. I was simply responding to Redneck's claim that death does not uniformnly tie all those liberal positions together because death is deserved in cases of rightful conviction. My response is that punishment and death are not necessarily the same thing.

I'm not anti-death penalty, by the way; just against the liberal fetish with death.

Mortimer Brezny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vbspurs said...

Being against the dealth penalty is a humanist position, not a moral one. It irks those who believe in tolerance, rather than in respect for life, above all.

I'm actually against the death penalty in theory, but not in practise.

(Don't worry, that doesn't make sense to me either)

Cheers,
Victoria

Mortimer Brezny said...

I may agree that convicts can be punished without the death penalty, but would that offer the needed closure both society and the victims' family need?

I agree that any person of compassion would side with the victim's families instead of with the killer. But amoral utilitarians who fetishize death aren't generally compassionate.

Richard Dolan said...

JAC's comment suggests that the passive/active distinction is useful in distinguishing "liberals" from "conservatives." That seems dubious, and in all events, JAC gives the game away with his summary of the "conservative" position: "Look, that may be unfortunate, but it's not the government's responsibility."

Liberals and conservatives often disagree about what is properly "the government's responsibility," sometimes (as Mort B suggests) on constitutional grounds and at other times merely as a prudential matter. But (at least as far as I am aware) "conservatives" don't think that line can or should be drawn by invoking any active/passive distinction. Instead, in arguing about the proper scope of "the government's responsibility," both liberals and conservatives make appeals to constitutional arguments, utilitarian arguments, moral arguments, economic/efficiency arguments (among many other types of arguments). The active/passive distinction is sometimes useful in circumscribing the scope of an individual actor's duty in a particular situation, but when it is, the reason is usually articulated in terms of utilitarian, moral or efficiency reasons. JAC's substantive point -- the deterrent effect of capital punishment provides a powerful moral justification for the penalty -- is the sort of thing more often heard from "conservatives." In contrast, "liberals" tend to focus on the disparities in the penalty's application. That a few "liberals" (he mentions Sunstein) have come around just proves the point.

Still, JAC blog is interesting for the light it sheds on the caricatures that each tribe has of the other. JAC evidently thinks that conservatives are a breed of moral cretins, who routinely rely on empty formalism to justify inaction in the face of suffering or social problems. In contrast, conservatives often distinguish themselves from liberals by saying that they are members of a reality-based community, whereas liberals inhabit some alternate universe.

There is something about an election season that makes people want to see the world (and particularly the opposition) through a fun-house mirror. IMO, the observations about liberals/conservatives in JAC's blog reflect just that sort of distortion. The only antidote for that kind of thinking is to get out and about more, and above all, to get out of any university setting.

dbp said...

"That's actually irrelevant. You simply don't have to kill convicts to punish them."

I agree; you don't have to kill them. My (conservative) view is that "have to" is not relevant. If they have murdered, then they deserve to die.

The Liberal viewpoint, as I understand it, is that society would be better-off if murderers were executed. You can protect the broader society by locking them up for life, but they still might kill a guard, a fellow prisoner, or excape and then kill again. If they do kill again, it would carry no consequence to the prisoner--if he already has life without parole, what are you going to do? Make it life without parole times two?

MadisonMan said...

but would that offer the needed closure both society and the victims' family need?

As for the victim's family needing closure -- do any states ask the victim's family if the criminal should be killed? Or is this a(nother) case where the state knows best?

vbspurs said...

Richard, this is neither here nor there nor should it influence your estimate of JAC's blog, but you're talking of Ann Althouse's son's blog, John Althouse Cohen.

Cheers,
Victoria

Freder Frederson said...

Being against the dealth penalty is a humanist position, not a moral one.

I thought you were Catholic. You apparently don't know much about your own religion.

Freder Frederson said...

As for the victim's family needing closure -- do any states ask the victim's family if the criminal should be killed? Or is this a(nother) case where the state knows best?

Actually, I believe the death penalty has to be imposed by a jury.

Mortimer Brezny said...

If they have murdered, then they deserve to die.

That's punishment. Has nothing to do, as I stated before, with my argument about the liberal fetish with death. Liberals don't have the courage of their convictions; if you're for death to fetuses, death to the old, and death to families that would otherwise defend themselves from armed criminals, then be for death to killers, too. As I originally noted, "If you think the government should have more power over our lives to determine the course of events and drive social change, there is no reason it shouldn't take the lives of the socially disutile."

But they're against death for killers and in favor of death for babies, families, the old because they lack compassion. I am a person of compassion, therefore I side with victim's families, babies that want to live, old people who want to decide how to live the end of their life, and families that want firearms to protect themselves from criminals.

Beth said...

This moral imperative argument doesn't address my concerns about the death penalty.
I'm not squeamish about revenge. I've been very pleased to see a few particular people have their last meal. But we make mistakes, and I don't believe that "well, at least we tried to do something" can justify the chance of executing the wrong person. Our system judges that a trial was fair if all the right procedural things happened. But that doesn't keep us from erring, and it's entirely possible that we've wrongly convicted people of murder, just as we've wrongly convicted them of other crimes.

I also oppose it based on my religious beliefs, but I'm willing to hold the law to a different standard than my spiritual beliefs. The practical problem of murdering an innocent, or at least wrongly convicted, person seals the deal for me.

Palladian said...

"I thought you were Catholic. You apparently don't know much about your own religion."

The Roman Catholic Church never killed anyone, of course.

vbspurs said...

The Liberal viewpoint, as I understand it, is that society would be better-off if murderers were executed.

Hmm. Typo? Regardless, I think countries who have abolished the death penalty long ago (on humane grounds via humanist ideals) cite two overriding reasons:

- "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer"

- The State doesn't have a right to take life under any circumstances. That is an individual decision.

And then, of course, some will quote Albert Pierrepoint, the famed official Executioner in the UK, who hanged 450 criminals:

"I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people..."

Whenever I am back on the old continent, I always have a lengthy and heated discussion about America's death penalty laws, with my old friends/family. Never fails.

Cheers,
Victoria

Henry said...

Seems to me that Jac's argument present a classic caricature of liberals: Liberals believe that that because the government can do something, it should do something.

However, liberals (as Jac uses the term) believe first in moral judgement, then in using state power to reify judgement as policy.

Jac's mistake is in proposing a utilitarian argument for the death penalty as if it is a moral argument. It's not.

Freder actually presents the true liberal position. Even if the death penalty results in a net savings of innocent lives (say 1 innocent person is wrongly executed each year while 2 innocent lives are saved because of the deterrent effect), there's still the moral problem of the state killing an innocent person. With this moral issue at stake, the utilitarian calculus makes no difference.

On this question, count me in with Freder.

Mortimer Brezny said...

The practical problem of murdering an innocent, or at least wrongly convicted, person seals the deal for me.

If practical, that's not an argument against the death penalty. That's an argument in favor of, say, mandatory DNA testing in capital cases, a stronger grand jury system, and raising fines in cases of prosecutorial misconduct.

Trooper York said...

As a serious Catholic I have to agree that I am against the death penalty. However I want to make these scumbags as uncomfortable as possible so we should torture them as much as we possibly can. And I know that the Catholic Church is definitely in favor of torture. Otherwise how could you explain Father Delvecchio's two hour homilies?

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Madison Man, I beleive this is another case of where inaction stands in for action.

The Sentancing part of the trial usually has a mitigation phase, where evidence can be presented to forestall a death penalty imposition, and the victim's family can testify at this point (there was a local case I heard of just this morning where the death was an accident, during a beating being administered for commiting adultery with the defendant's wife; the victim's family asked for the lightest sentence possible and the court complied with their wishes), and if they fail to ask for leniency, their inaction is construed as agreement with the death penalty.

Mortimer Brezny said...

Freder actually presents the true liberal position. Even if the death penalty results in a net savings of innocent lives (say 1 innocent person is wrongly executed each year while 2 innocent lives are saved because of the deterrent effect), there's still the moral problem of the state killing an innocent person. With this moral issue at stake, the utilitarian calculus makes no difference.

If you really believed this, you'd insist that the State prosecute anyone who kills in self-defense for murder. Because sometimes we never really know who started it.

Mortimer Brezny said...

With this moral issue at stake, the utilitarian calculus makes no difference.

If liberals believed this, they'd be pro-life, in favor of individual gun rights, and against euthanasia.

Hoosier Daddy said...

"I thought you were Catholic. You apparently don't know much about your own religion

Catholics are also opposed to birth control, abortion, pre-marital sex, eating meat on Fridays during Lent and allowing priests to marry. Depending on your point of view, few of those are moral issues either.

I know that God said vengeance is his but I look at capital punishment as our humble way of fast-tracking.

Henry said...

Mortimer, you mistake my description of a specific moral judgement with proclamation of a general moral principle. I used the word "judgement" in my comment on purpose, because this is a contextual case.

And, of course, your reductio ad absurdum arguments stink with fallacious premises, but that hardly matters.

Mortimer Brezny said...

Mortimer, you mistake my description of a specific moral judgement with proclamation of a general moral principle. I used the word "judgement" in my comment on purpose, because this is a contextual case.

And, of course, your reductio ad absurdum arguments stink with fallacious premises, but that hardly matters.


When you run out of valid arguments that haven't proven unsound, assert that your opponent has mistaken your claims and hurl an ad hominem.

Synova said...

Someone mentioned (or quoted someone else) about revenge...

The *thing* is that we have an agreement, the people with the state, that the people will not take justice into our own hands but will allow the state to take up that basic human right in our stead.

Of *course* it's about revenge.

And if the state won't adequately punish those deemed guilty then someone else *will*. And that leads to all sorts of bad social results, chaos, etc. We could be looking at revenge killings, beatings or vandalism, stalking, and all sorts of ways for frustrated victims to get-back at those who hurt them. Like teenagers slashing car tires only more-so.

Does it need to be the death penalty? Probably not. How many murderers actually get the death penalty and are killed? The drawn out process likely takes most all that particular benefit away in any case.

The moral issue of killing murderers doesn't seem an issue to me. The "right to life" like any right can be voluntarily given up, just like the right to freedom. The sorts of murders that the death penalty is meant for certainly qualify as giving up any "right to life" that the person was born with. (And yes, the idea that killing the innocent or infirm is moral and killing murderers immoral is not rational.)

I haven't noticed any strong moral proactiveness among liberals lately. Sure they have their issues but the larger questions seem to be answered most often with an attitude that if we (the US) isn't involved then it didn't really happen.

I don't know how many times I've attempted to explain that there is no choice between blood on our hands and hands without blood on them. It's blood in any case, through action or inaction, and the hands it's on is ours.

That's not a call for aggressive intervention. It's a baseline to evaluate what we chose to do or not to do. Choices have to be made. In the case of the death penalty and related moral issues of life... the choice is often between the guilty and innocent. Not doing what is hard for fear of making a mistake does not avoid mistakes. A mistake the other direction may mean more innocent people dead. The fact that those deaths were not an active choice doesn't mean that you or I did not chose them every bit as much as we'd chose to take a life through the courts.

There are no clean hands. None.

Deal with it.

Freder Frederson said...

Depending on your point of view, few of those are moral issues either.

If you are Catholic, they are moral issues--certainly not "humanistic" ones.

vbspurs said...

I'm off for a while, but just to mention I liked JAC's citing Obama's "Audacity of Hope" explanation of why he is a liberal (indeed, what IS a liberal, in his opinion):

I am a Democrat, after all; my views on most topics correspond more closely to the editorial pages of the New York Times than those of the Wall Street Journal. I am angry about policies that consistently favor the wealthy and powerful over average Americans, and insist that government has an important role in opening up opportunity to all. I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming; I believe in free speech, whether politically correct or politically incorrect, and I am suspicious of using government to impose anybody’s religious beliefs—including my own—on nonbelievers.

My first thought is this is a simplistic explanation, even condenscending one, of what an American Democrat is.

Then I realise that's because I am a little angered that if a Conservative, say McCain, had similarly written:

"I am a Republican because my views correspond more closely to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal than those of the New York Times, I am angry about policies that consistently favor quotas that sometimes punish more qualified people, and insist that government has a limited role in regulating private citizens' lives. I believe in the diversity of human opinions, which includes tolerance of traditions of religious value in the public sphere, and am sceptical about the politicised nature of global warming; I believe in free speech, whether politically correct or politically incorrect, and I am suspicious of using government to impose anybody’s sense of historical outrage unto others, especially those whose ancestors took no part in it."

...that media and academics would fall over themselves in paroxysms of hatred and abuse to what he said.

I guess I AM a little bitter.

I'm bitter that one guy gets a pass on stating really simplistic reasons of why he's a Democrat and what is a Democrat, but the Republican would get roasted alive for the self-same reasons.

I will now play with my guns. Catch you guys later.

Cheers,
Victoria

Roger J. said...

For most of my life I have been a supporter of the death penalty; my basis of support was retributive justice. I also felt that fact that the state imposed the death penalty in a calculated manner also served as a reminder that only that state has the authority to take lives.

Unfortunately, the recent developments in DNA testing have convinced me (rightly or wrongly) that there is simply too much possibility of error to satisfy my previous criteria. I am no longer a proponent of the death penalty.
(even though there are some SOBs I would personally whack if given a chance).

And to sooth my conflicted sould, I take John M Keynes as my exemplar: "when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" :)

Triangle Man said...

Victoria, Your comments today are brilliant! I think McCain should immediately hire you as chief Speech Writer.

William said...

There is a slippery slope on either side of this argument. At the present time we are, perhaps, too far down on the liberal side of the slope, but it is all to the good that people debate this matter. I was reading that this maniac in Austria who imprisoned his children faces 15 yrs in prison. Doesn't the mildness of this sentence offend our sense of justice as much as the hanging of 12 year old pickpockets? Man's clemency is as imperfect as his censure.

Richard Fagin said...

Let's accept the liberal position that if the government is in a position to solve a problem then it is morally obligated to solve it.

What if the government's "doing something" to solve a problem can be shown in fact to make the problem worse. Isn't the government then morally obligated to stop what it is doing to make the problem worse.

That's the real argument between liberals and everybody else. I think even most conservatives acccept the government's moral obligation to solve problems that it is position to solve. What many of us believe, however, is that government action is making certain things worse, and liberals continue to push for the same types of government actions that have been demonstrated in the past to have made things worse.

madawaskan said...

Well isn't the whole argument-

Should a state in an organized, and cold blooded fashion commit what it says it is against?

The Political Jerk said...

Liberals also like to think ahead, and undo mistakes.

If you falsely imprison a person, at least you can give them the rest of their life back. If you falsely kill them, there's not much you can do to rectify it.

It's that forward thinking that makes me a liberal, and against the death penalty.

John Althouse Cohen said...

There is something about an election season that makes people want to see the world (and particularly the opposition) through a fun-house mirror. IMO, the observations about liberals/conservatives in JAC's blog reflect just that sort of distortion. The only antidote for that kind of thinking is to get out and about more, and above all, to get out of any university setting.

Ironically, you're distorting my position.

I wasn't trying to distinguish liberals from conservatives by saying that liberals believe one thing and conservatives believe the opposite. All I meant to do was point to a principle and say: "You need to hold this principle to be a liberal; people who reject this principle are probably conservatives (or liberals with internally contradictory views)." It doesn't follow that all conservative reject that principle. In fact, I went out of my way to redupiate any such caricature-like view of conservatives in the footnote at the end of my post.

FYI, I'm not in a "university setting." I graduated from law school last year.

To everyone: thanks for the comments -- I hope to do an update at some point that will incorporate some of your responses.

madawaskan said...

JAC sites a study that says that they believe that murder rates are coming down, that murder is being deterred by the death penalty.

That-potential criminals are weighing the possibility of execution and that is acting as a deterrance.

I don't think the study is including or talking about recidivism.

madawaskan said...

Damn it Sister Mary Clarence is going to kill me....

I forgot to synthesize the idea.

Is it possible that since the state seemingly "condoned" murder that when they started killing in an organized fashion that potential criminals looked at that and felt they were more justified to murder?

In otherwords is it possible that there was an unmeasured uptick-or does the metrics that JAC talks about go back that far-and consider that?

dbp said...

"madawaskan said...
Well isn't the whole argument-

Should a state in an organized, and cold blooded fashion commit what it says it is against?"

Murder is an unlawful killing. An execution that follows from the application of law is the opposite of murder.

Roger J. said...

Political Jerk: just because one happens to be a conservative doesn't mean that person doesnt think ahead. You must not understand Burkean conservatism very well or you flatter the liberal mindset far more than it deserves.

P. Rich said...

"Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer"

Until 100 more innocents suffer for the imposition of this absurd "rationale".

Dead criminals commit no more crimes. Apparently that is not a self-evident truth to some.

Life without possibility of parole for heinous crimes? Then society must feed, cloth, medically treat and entertain them for decades. That sounds more like a reward.

Rehabilitation? A nice theory, but unachievable in practice with today's knowledge and tools.

And so, inevitably back to permanent eradication.

mcg said...

I remember when the Dalai Lama visted Stanford a few years back. I was struck by the degree of pragmatism in his discussion of nonviolence.

Would you believe that he actually said that it was too early to say (in November 2005!) whether or not the war in Iraq is right or wrong? A Stanford news article paraphrased a portion of his argument thusly: "...a harsh action could be done out of compassion and the intent to protect others.... Limited violence can be permissible, and countering a violent action with a strong countermeasure sometimes is not only permissible 'but is the right thing to do'.... The organized violence of war, however, is never a lasting solution...."

Now I do not worship the Dalai Lama nor do I lend him particularly more credibility on the issue than I would any other earnest thinker on the subject. But I will say that I found his restraint on the issue interesting and, well, refreshing.

So if you must, dispute the validity of statistics that suggest the death penalty, net net, saves lives. But I don't think anyone should smugly claim the moral high ground if he accepts such statistics for the sake of argument and rejects the death penalty anyway.

Imagine five individuals held hostage, the captor instructing hostage #1 to kill one of the other four. If he complies, the remaining four live; if he does not, (including if he chooses to take his own life), they all die. Is the moral calculus so easy?

Suppose we find conclusive evidence that the execution of a convicted murderer results in 12 fewer murders. Can one still claim moral superiority by refusing to support the execution? Does it really change the equation if occasionally the convicted murderer is, in fact, innocent?

Are you prepared to ban cars, given the number of innocent people are killed daily while driving? Are people supposed to die just so I can get to work?

Freder Frederson said...

Until 100 more innocents suffer for the imposition of this absurd "rationale".

Unless of course you are the one innocent wrongfully imprisoned for a crime. Then I bet you would gladly free the ten criminals.

Let's accept the liberal position that if the government is in a position to solve a problem then it is morally obligated to solve it.

Let's not. I checked and rechecked my Liberal Bible and nowhere in it can I find such a broad and ridiculous assertion.

Freder Frederson said...

But I don't think anyone should smugly claim the moral high ground if he accepts such statistics for the sake of argument and rejects the death penalty anyway.

We accept all kinds of tradeoffs and smugly claim the moral high ground. Guilt has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If we really cared about deterring crime we would throw out the Fifth Amendment, double jeopardy, allow coerced evidence, and wouldn't care about niceities like illegally obtained evidence. And of course, if you had a jury that just got it wrong, the Judge should be able to reverse the verdict.

Summer Anne said...

In the original post: "Of course, there's always the risk of executing an innocent person. But that's surely a tiny fraction of cases, i.e. the equivalent of a tiny fraction of an innocent life per execution on average. So that doesn't seem to come anywhere near making up for the innocent lives saved by executing people."

The death penalty has to be based on more than just the protection of innocent lives: if that was the only goal that our law was upholding, then all kinds of things we accept as being part of our personal freedoms would be outlawed because they sometimes result in innocent lives being lost. The essential reason for the death penalty has to be that we believe that murdering innocent people is wrong and that the fit punishment for that crime is death. If that's the case and there is a margin of error in which some "tiny" fraction of innocent people are executed by our government, it seems that it would follow to execute judges, prosecutors, and police officers who could be held responsible for those innocent lives. But no one would make that argument.

The article is interesting and the argument is incredibly well-articulated, but I consider myself squarely in the 'liberal' camp and I don't believe it's incompatible to be against the death penalty to prevent the cases where we (as a country) are committing the very crime we're condemning. And I think it's a very liberal (and, frankly, morally sound) position to say that no innocent life lost should be cast aside because it represents a statistically small margin of error.

mcg said...

We accept all kinds of tradeoffs and smugly claim the moral high ground.

Yes, agreed :)

Guilt has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Right. Note that this is not guilt beyond any doubt, however. It is still theoretically possible for an innocent to be convicted under this burden of proof, even setting aside prosecutorial misconduct and similar matters. This is a good example of one of the practical tradeoffs we have made as a society: we tolerate some false convictions, just not many. And with that we accept that sometimes the life of an innocent will be irrevocably damaged in the larger cause of justice.

If we really cared about deterring crime we would throw out the Fifth Amendment, double jeopardy, allow coerced evidence, and wouldn't care about niceities like illegally obtained evidence.

I kind of get your point but it seems a bit silly to suggest that if we cared about deterring crime we would allow more of it to occur.

And of course, if you had a jury that just got it wrong, the Judge should be able to reverse the verdict.

There's a double-edged sword if I ever heard one!

mcg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mcg said...

The article is interesting and the argument is incredibly well-articulated, but I consider myself squarely in the 'liberal' camp and I don't believe it's incompatible to be against the death penalty to prevent the cases where we (as a country) are committing the very crime we're condemning.

We condemn unlawful imprisonment and kidnapping, too. Shall we stop apprehending and imprisoning convicted kidnappers?

And I think it's a very liberal (and, frankly, morally sound) position to say that no innocent life lost should be cast aside because it represents a statistically small margin of error.

So you support my proposal to ban driving, then? How many innocent lives are lost on roads every day?

Richard Dolan said...

JAC: "I wasn't trying to distinguish liberals from conservatives by saying that liberals believe one thing and conservatives believe the opposite. All I meant to do was point to a principle and say: 'You need to hold this principle to be a liberal; people who reject this principle are probably conservatives (or liberals with internally contradictory views).'"

1. You're not making much sense here. A principle that (a) one must hold to be a liberal, and (b) "probably [makes you a] conservativ[e]" if you reject it, sounds like an excellent criterion to distinguish a liberal from a conservative. Whether you were trying to come up with such a distinction, the fact remains that you did. It doesn't help matters by noting that you disavow (in a footnote!) that you are making any claim about what "all conservative" believe. A principle that all "liberals" must hold, and that divides the world into liberals vs. non-liberals (meaning "probably conservatives") is close enough for government work.

2. You wrote a perfectly sensible and informative post about capital punishment. Why junk it up with a lot of nonsense about "liberals" and "conservatives"? It is highly unlikely that there is any principle (other than the most empty platitude) that anyone "need[s] to hold ... to be a liberal." The term "liberal" is applied too loosely to admit of anything like that. Just as there is nothing of significance that one "must believe" in order to be a liberal, so there is nothing of significance that "all conservatives" agree on or "reject." Surely this election cycle proves that, if nothing else.

3. As for footnotes, no one reads them (and if you do, you're probably a conservative).

4. "I'm not in a 'university setting.' I graduated from law school last year." That's not nearly enough time to overcome the deleterious effects of an American university education.

Beth said...

If practical, that's not an argument against the death penalty. That's an argument in favor of, say, mandatory DNA testing in capital cases, a stronger grand jury system, and raising fines in cases of prosecutorial misconduct.

Not at all, Mortimer. My objection is still practical. DNA doesn't speak to all elements of a case; a person can still be guilty without DNA evidence present, or even with conflicting DNA evidence. Grand juries still make judgment calls, and judgments can be wrong. I'm all for prosecuting prosecutorial misconduct. But still, practically, there are many cases that depend on the types of evidence that leave just enough chance of a mistake.

Synova said...

"Should a state in an organized, and cold blooded fashion commit what it says it is against?"

Viewing a murder the same as any killing is part of the problem, if we have the death penalty or not.

This is sloppy thinking. Is any death the same action because it is a death? Is any confinement the same action because it is confinement?

Take that guy in Austria someone pointed out... he got 15 years? How long did he lock up his children? Is the *state* now guilty of the same crime he committed? I don't think so, do you? And yes, the mildness of the sentence is offensive. It is not adequate in any way to represent the value of the lives of the victims.

And be clear... "We" do not condemn all death. There is a very clear difference between a murder and self-defense, for example. If I kill someone who is attacking me it is *not* condemned. It is my human right to defend myself.

It isn't my human right to go kill someone because I want to take his money or because she is competing with my daughter in cheerleading or whatever.

It is my human right to kill the person trying to do that to *me*.

And if I don't manage it and I die?

How PLEASE those of you making the equivalency arguments explain HOW if the state kills that person when I failed to do so in self-defense, how the STATE resembles my murderer morally and resembles myself morally not at all?

Summer Anne said...

We condemn unlawful imprisonment and kidnapping, too. Shall we stop apprehending and imprisoning convicted kidnappers?

Obviously we trust trained law enforcement to use certain methods that a citizen wouldn't legally be able to. I don't think that it follows that the crime we find most abhorrent should be carried out by our court system later on in the process, particularly since the death penalty is impossible to 'take back' or repent for if we (and we have and will) make a mistake. If I was suspected of a crime that I didn't commit and jailed for ten years before being proven innocent, I'd be pretty pissed at our court system. If I was innocent and executed, I'd be dead. I don't find that morally acceptable even if it's framed by some numbers saying that it's better for the whole.

So you support my proposal to ban driving, then? How many innocent lives are lost on roads every day?

As I said in my original response, we allow lots of things that cost innocent lives because we value our freedom and consider that just as important as protecting our lives. I think that insisting that we avoid giving our courts the power to decide which citizens should live or die is pretty consistent with that view.

The Political Jerk said...

Roger J:

This is a late response, I know...

I never said that conservatives don't think ahead. That was a conclusion you jumped to.

I merely said that liberals like to think about the future, and that is a very good reason for them to oppose the death penalty, regardless of this state action mess.

Freder Frederson said...

I kind of get your point but it seems a bit silly to suggest that if we cared about deterring crime we would allow more of it to occur.

The point is we have agreed to a set of rules beyond which we will not go even if it was proved that violating those rules would reduce crime. Methods of punishment is one of those rules and constitutionally guaranteed. Whether or not it would deter crime or not, punishment can not be cruel or unusual. Likewise, if we decide to ban the death penalty because we think it is immoral, then that is a decision society as a whole (or maybe just "activist" judges) will make.

Very few matters of life and death can be broken down into a cold cost benefit analysis.

Synova said...

"I think it's a very liberal (and, frankly, morally sound) position to say that no innocent life lost should be cast aside because it represents a statistically small margin of error."

Yet innocent lives are cast aside if we don't do something that is proven to save innocent lives.

Either way, dead innocents.

Which way ends up with more dead innocents cast callously aside as if they don't matter at all?

We need to get over this idea that if we don't *do* something that it doesn't happen. It does happen. And decisions and choices made either way need to be made with the understanding of the fact that innocent people *will* die.

And the question of which way ends with fewer deaths is not automatically the correct answer.

But the argument that an innocent should not be accidentally killed by the state no matter what ignores that actions and IN-actions have consequences and we're responsible for results either way, not just for one side of it.

Roger J. said...

Political Jerk--you are indeed correct--after rereading your post, you did not say that, and I apologize for my leap. I did need my exercise for the day, and I usually get it by leaping to conclusions. Conservatives do think ahead and use the past as their context for their future policy choices.

Revenant said...

Methods of punishment is one of those rules and constitutionally guaranteed.

Yes, but the Constitution provides both for capital crimes and for depriving people of life (after due process). So capital punishment clearly is on the table as an available deterrent for criminals.

Henry said...

Mcg, you've turned Jac's utilitarian argument into an actuarial argument.

I think that's a useful vantage point -- because it brings to light issues that the utilitarian argument obfuscates.

As the driving analogy illustrates, most people -- even liberals! -- are willing to accept a certain amount of death and destruction in exchange for an open society.

Likewise with the death penalty. I can recognize that eliminating the death penalty may increase the number of deaths. Yet, as with the 65 MPH speed limit, I can also express a preference for a society that accepts that risk.

Jac's "failure to act" standard is not much different from Mortimer's "liberals support death" accusation. Both assign the opposing viewpoint a one-dimensional value system that is indefensible. But, of course, the opposing viewpoint bears no resemblance to the caricature.

No ethical person, conservative or liberals, considers a failure to act as excusable by axiom; rather, people simply evaluate the costs of action vs. inaction by different, multiple, measures.

The refusal to excuse governmental inaction, remember, underlies the support by many conservatives for the Iraq war. Yet liberals who opposed the war weren't excusing the government of culpability in allowing the Hussein regime to continue its depredations on its people; they were simply evaluating the costs of action by a different set of standards.

And in almost all of the tough questions, both sides apply standards -- such as honor, freedom, mercy, justice -- that do not necessarily have an actuarial or utilitarian componenet.

Methadras said...

The position of the death penalty in my view tends to transcend conservative/liberal lines of thought since I've know people on either side that are for or against for whatever reason. In either case it's an issue that is untenable to ascribe to one ideology over the other. If you look at it from the perspective that from a societal point of view, that a society cannot allow those who have killed or murdered within it to live any longer than necessary. Because if you do, then you are in effect saying that the life of the killer/murder is more valuable than the life of the victim, even if that victim is just like killer or murderer himself.

The current strain of thought in American society is that we have the time, money, and space to house, feed, clothe, and study these people to hopeful betterment of people, so that we can arm our mental minders (psychiatrists/psychologists) to watch out for the tell-tale signs of a potential victim or a potential killer. However, in this society we are reactive, not pro-active in this regard. We have to wait for someone to kill or be killed before a whole host of governmental intervention can ensue. Anything otherwise is thought police in the vein of a minority report like society. I will unequivocally say that I am for the death penalty.

I believe it serves a purpose if for nothing else that it removes killers and murderers from annals of society. That they will no longer prey or harm anyone else with their mere presence or influence. I'm not making this a legal argument even though the logistical nightmares in death penalty cases overwhelms all rational thought in the way it is now carried out in this country, but I'm making this a realistic argument for why we as a society must uphold it if for nothing else than to show ourselves and the world that certain actions will never be tolerated and that the consequences are final and permanent.

Revenant said...

If I was suspected of a crime that I didn't commit and jailed for ten years before being proven innocent, I'd be pretty pissed at our court system.

You'd be more than "pretty pissed". You'd be ten years older. That's ten years of your life, gone forever.

Suppose you wrongly convict a 60-year-old man and send him to jail for 15 years. Ten years later, he dies in prison; a few years after that, you discover he was innocent after all. How is that qualitatively different from wrongly executing him? Is spending the last ten years of your life locked in a cell qualitatively better than dying ten years early?

Revenant said...

No ethical person, conservative or liberals, considers a failure to act as excusable by axiom

That's true only if you're talking about individual action. Many conservatives (and pretty much all libertarians), however, feel that there is indeed nothing morally wrong with the government failing to act, because the government is not an agent of morality -- it is an agent of utility.

mcg said...

Obviously we trust trained law enforcement to use certain methods that a citizen wouldn't legally be able to.

Of course. So you accept that this is an argument of degrees, really. You agree that we give our government permission to damage certain people's lives, even though a (hopefully) small percentage of them are innocent of the crimes with which they are accused. We simply disagree about what kind of damage can be done them.

I don't think that it follows that the crime we find most abhorrent should be carried out by our court system later on in the process,

Death happens all the time; even death at the hands of others, even deliberate killing by others. But not all of those cases are crimes. For instance, if I shoot you because you're about to kill me, that's not murder; it is not a crime. When the government follows established due process, without misconduct or negligence, and results in the execution of a convicted murderer, it is by no means committing the same crime as the murderer himself.

particularly since the death penalty is impossible to 'take back' or repent for if we (and we have and will) make a mistake. If I was suspected of a crime that I didn't commit and jailed for ten years before being proven innocent, I'd be pretty pissed at our court system. If I was innocent and executed, I'd be dead.

This is actually a far less compelling argument to me than you'd like it to be. If I put you in jail for 10 years, there is no take backs, either. Yes, sure, you're out of jail, you have your freedom back, you might even get some money from the government, but your life is still in the crapper. If you had a child, he's grown up for 10 years without a parent in the home.

Furthermore, there is by no means a guarantee that you will ever be vindicated before you die. Thus for a fair percentage of falsely convicted felons, imprisonment is a practical death sentence.

So your moral position certainly does not prevent the irrevocable damage to innocent persons. Remember, you were the one who said that it wasn't OK to toss aside an innocent life just because the percentages were small.

Mortimer Brezny said...

But still, practically, there are many cases that depend on the types of evidence that leave just enough chance of a mistake.

The reason your description of these cases is so vague is that they do not exist, not even conceptually.

Walter said...

the polical jerk said:

Liberals also like to think ahead...

< snark >
Well, that's good to know, but I'd wish they use this ability more often, because there are many government policies that liberals have supported that had unintended consequences that could have been prevented had they been thinking ahead.

< /snark >

William said...

I confidently predict that within the next year a paroled murderer will commit another murder. Liberals will not consider this an argument for the abolition of parole boards...Many here seem to be looking for a guiding principle to inform their decision, but in a democracy the guiding principle is public opinon and the circumstances that form it... I live in NYC where the murder rate is plummeting. Capital punishment used to be a huge issue here. It cost Cuomo the election. Now that the murder rate is low and going lower, capital punishment is no longer the kind of issue that influences elections.

Summer Anne said...

Death happens all the time; even death at the hands of others, even deliberate killing by others. But not all of those cases are crimes. For instance, if I shoot you because you're about to kill me, that's not murder; it is not a crime. When the government follows established due process, without misconduct or negligence, and results in the execution of a convicted murderer, it is by no means committing the same crime as the murderer himself.

I agree. Which is why the primary reason that I'm against the death penalty is specifically because of the 'tiny fraction' of wrongfully executed. I agree that the death penalty can not usually be equated with murder, but in the case of wrongful executions -- and I don't think any rational person can argue that there isn't a guarantee that they have and will continue to occur -- I think that's murder. Period.

So your moral position certainly does not prevent the irrevocable damage to innocent persons. Remember, you were the one who said that it wasn't OK to toss aside an innocent life just because the percentages were small.

But the entire argument in the study is that people fear the death penalty so much that it prevents crime! Isn't that evidence that most people -- I can certainly speak for myself confidently -- feel that imprisonment is signifigantly preferable to death? I know that this entire debate is full of grey area, but I don't think you have much ground to stand on if you're arguing that imprisoning an innocent person is the same as killing them. That doesn't ring true by any moral or philosophical standpoint (see "Man's Search For Meaning" for evidence of how much someone can live internally despite imprisonment) and defeats the entire basis of what you're arguing for.

Bruce Hayden said...

"Liberals also like to think ahead, and undo mistakes."

The Great Society?
Welfare reform?
Social Security?
Jimmy Carter?
Vietnam War?
Racial and gender politics?
Support of communism?

Pages could probably be written on all of these, and more, where liberals not only did not look ahead, but refuse to reconsider their failures.

Note that I am not suggesting that conservatives don't have their own myopia, but rather, these are just some of the examples of liberal myopia.

Summer Anne said...

Is spending the last ten years of your life locked in a cell qualitatively better than dying ten years early?

See above. Briefly, yes, it is. That's the entire thesis behind the original article.

mcg said...

I agree. Which is why the primary reason that I'm against the death penalty is specifically because of the 'tiny fraction' of wrongfully executed.

As I suggested before: are you, or are you not, against life imprisonment without the possibility of parole---and long prison terms that are effectively death sentences---because of the tiny fraction of people wrongfully sentenced to that fate? I mean, if they die in prison wrongfully, surely that is murder under your rigid standard, right?

But the entire argument in the study is that people fear the death penalty so much that it prevents crime! Isn't that evidence that most people -- I can certainly speak for myself confidently -- feel that imprisonment is signifigantly preferable to death?

Do you really want to use the language of "preference"? Of course I agree that the deterrent effect of the death penalty is only so because it is considered, by potential perpetrators, to be worse than life imprisonment.

So what? You're basing your argument here on the fate of innocents, for which this deterrent effect is by definition nonexistent. My preference is quite strongly neither fate, thank you very much. Which is one of many reasons why I don't commit crimes that merit either penalty.

And again, since not every innocent person is going to be vindicated before they die in prison, a life sentence is effectively a death penalty. Let's add the fact that the likelihood of being a victim of violence, or even violent death, while in prison is elevated. Even if we were better at prison security than we are, that's going to be true---after all, there are a bunch of murderers in there...

So by your standard, which forbids even the tiniest fraction of unwarranted deaths of innocents, long prison sentences must also unacceptable.

I know that this entire debate is full of grey area,

You could have fooled me! You're unwilling to accept even the tiniest fraction of executions of innocents, and yet you're more than happy to let innocents rot in prison until they die of either natural or violent causes. There seems to be a very solid line drawn in your mind.

I don't think you have much ground to stand on if you're arguing that imprisoning an innocent person is the same as killing them. That doesn't ring true by any moral or philosophical standpoint (see "Man's Search For Meaning" for evidence of how much someone can live internally despite imprisonment) and defeats the entire basis of what you're arguing for.

Well, that's a relief, that it's somehow possible to assemble some sort of sustainable internal existence if you're condemned to prison for the rest of your life. I'll keep that in mind the next time I'm wrongly convicted of murder! At least, I'll try to, if I'm not busy enough watching my back.

But again, what is clear here is that this is an argument of degrees, not any sort of clear moral line. We agree that it is acceptable for the government to cause a significant amount of damage to a person's life, much of it irrevocable, even though that will happen occasionally to an innocent person.

Synova said...

"Yet liberals who opposed the war weren't excusing the government of culpability in allowing the Hussein regime to continue its depredations on its people;"

I think they were. How do you figure they weren't? Or aren't now suggesting that another genocide like the one after we left SE Asia isn't the least concern of ours?

Not everyone of course, but try to make the argument sometime that it would be morally wrong to bring our troops home if it results in civil war or a resurgence of AQI and a great deal of human suffering and see the reactions that you get.

Synova said...

Saying sad words and hand wringing doesn't actually stop any bad guys from doing bad things.

I don't view words of concern without actions any sort of proof of caring what happens to other human beings.

Revenant said...

But the entire argument in the study is that people fear the death penalty so much that it prevents crime! Isn't that evidence that most people -- I can certainly speak for myself confidently -- feel that imprisonment is signifigantly preferable to death?

Preferable, yes. Significantly, not necessarily. I'd rather be shot in the head than burned alive, but I couldn't call it a significant preference.

That aside, your argument was that the death penalty does permanent, irrevocable harm. So does imprisonment. Your argument that prison does LESS harm is unrelated to your original claim -- even if the harm is less, it is still permanent and irrevocable. This means that you cannot base your opposition to the death penalty on its irrevocable nature without also opposing prison sentences. You have to rely on a different argument -- that being wrongly killed is so much worse than wrongly spending your entire remaining life in prison that we can't take the risk of allowing executions.

That argument is one you haven't successfully made. It is by no means obvious that "wrongly killed" is so much worse than "wrongly jailed for the last 10 years of your life" that the former must be banned while the latter is allowed. If I thought there was any significant risk of EITHER thing happening to me I would flee the country.

madawaskan said...

There's so much herring flying around in here it's reminding me of Newfoundland.

Synova-if you think of it mathmatically-then you would not equate this-

Should a state in an organized, and cold blooded fashion commit what it says it is against?

with this-

If I kill someone who is attacking me it is *not* condemned.

How are you equating the act of an individual in immediate peril with the act of the state as a whole upon an individual after a protracted process?

mcg-
Also honestly car accidents?

And death that is a result of old age incidental to imprisonment is not the same thing.

vbspurs said...

Triangle Man wrote:

Victoria, Your comments today are brilliant! I think McCain should immediately hire you as chief Speech Writer.

*kicks more pebbles* Thanks, Triangle Man. You made my day. :)

Cheers,
Victoria

Revenant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Revenant said...

How are you equating the act of an individual in immediate peril with the act of the state as a whole upon an individual after a protracted process?

"The state as a whole" doesn't execute people. In most cases a single person does. The whole lengthy process leading up to that moment is just there to make sure that the killing is justified and properly dealt with.

The reason the two scenarios are similar is that we recognize that the act of committing a murder is sufficiently heinous that your own life may legitimately be forfeit.

And death that is a result of old age incidental to imprisonment is not the same thing.

It isn't identical, but it is highly similar. The falsely imprisoned man may enjoy ten extra years of life, but they are ten miserable years -- and there's nothing you can do to make it up to him.

jmk said...

Point 1 - somewhere along the line, the conclusions of this study are highly likely to be proved wrong. Common sense would tell you that if they were right, the murder rate should be considerably higher here in 'liberal' Western Europe than it is in the US. The opposite is true.

Point 2 - even assuming the conclusions were true, presumably by an extension of the same logic the use of flogging and torture would also reduce the rate of serious crime. Are liberals supposed to be clamouring for these punishments as well? The bottom line is this is a moral issue, and that side of the argument trumps all others.

Point 3 - the utilitarian approach would be to do whatever works best, not something that might work a bit but is more macho. Again, even assuming these figures have any credibility, I doubt it would be too difficult to produce other meta-analyses that showed a far, far higher correlation between a high murder rate on the one hand, and poverty or a gun culture on the other. A liberal who is truly 'passive' in the face of murder and mayhem is one who does not address the true root causes of it.

mcg said...

Also honestly car accidents?

Yes, car accidents. In fact, it seems to me that if we're putting someone to death for murder, at least it's because something atrocious like murder occurred. When someone dies in a traffic accident it's because Joe Blow didn't check his blind spot. Seems to me that if life is as precious as anti-death penalty folks suggest, the latter ought to be more heart-wrenching than the former.

And death that is a result of old age incidental to imprisonment is not the same thing.

No, it's not the same, but it still comes more prematurely (statistically) than it would if the person were not in prison, and there is a higher likelihood that it will be violent and painful. Hell, at least with execution you've got Justice Stevens making sure your drug cocktail kills the pain.

mcg said...

One of my overall points is this: you design the penalty for the guilty, and you design the trial and burden of proof for the innocent. Shying away from an appropriate penalty out of fear of punishing the occasional innocent is an inappropriate conflation. The appropriate outlet for that concern is the improvement of the trial process.

Synova said...

"How are you equating the act of an individual in immediate peril with the act of the state as a whole upon an individual after a protracted process?"

If someone is trying to rape or kill me or someone else that person can be killed. If I am capable of lethal force then I can do it to prevent the rape or murder of my own self or others.

If I'm not capable of lethal force then... tough tooties... I'm raped and dead. Or someone else is.

But my inability is irrelevant to the fact that the aggressor by his or her actions has forfeited his or her right to life. And my inability and consequent death does not suddenly give my attacker or murderer new value to their life.

The protracted legal process means that the consequences are separated in time from the act, but so? Why does someone who can be killed for what they are trying to do end up *not* deserving of death if they actually accomplish it?

The main difference between self-defense and a court is that if you're defending yourself you almost can't mistake the person attacking you. That's how vigilantism is different... we agree to let the state act after the fact in favor of social order and agree that charges actually have to be proven.

But that doesn't give up our right to justice or nullify the forfeiting of the right to life that existed during the attack as it happened.

Synova said...

Think of it... the idea of self-defense means that a person gets the death penalty for *attempted* murder or rape...

To get the death penalty in court it requires someone to actually have been killed. (Though I think somewhere or other just passed the death penalty for particularly heinous child-rapes.)

And Europe? I donno. I don't feel unsafe here where I live even though I believe the stats for Albuquerque are pretty dang bad. And some teen aged girls just blew up a house in England and killed a neighbor man they weren't even targeting. It's certainly true that I'm in far more danger in my car.

Revenant said...

Common sense would tell you that if they were right, the murder rate should be considerably higher here in 'liberal' Western Europe than it is in the US. The opposite is true.

I think your common sense needs a tune-up. There are many factors which feed into a country's murder rate, and the existence of capital punishment is only one of them. You also need to consider that almost all Americans live in places where capital punishment is practiced either rarely or not at all; only a few states (e.g., Texas) actually make a serious effort to execute criminals.

by an extension of the same logic the use of flogging and torture would also reduce the rate of serious crime.

The use of torture and flogging as punishment is forbidden by the Constitution, so that's off the table. But liberals do support violating people's rights in the name of the ostensibly common good, property and child-rearing rights in particular. Three generations ago they also favored forcible sterilization and institutionalization of individuals deemed a detriment to society. So it isn't like there's no precedent here.

the utilitarian approach would be to do whatever works best, not something that might work a bit but is more macho.

Execution IS what works best. It is quite amazing how low the crime rate is among the dead.

Synova said...

And with the fires lately I'm probably in more danger in my house.

jmk said...

Revenant - "There are many factors which feed into a country's murder rate, and the existence of capital punishment is only one of them." But that was precisely the point I went on to make later, ie. that there are other far more important factors which include levels of poverty and availability of guns. The lower murder rate in western Europe clearly demonstrate that, at the very least, capital punishment must be a fairly trivial factor compared to all the others. And by pointing that out, you've also neatly demolished your own argument that "execution is what works best", because whatever we've been doing in Europe has clearly been more effective - I'm surprised you didn't spot that yourself actually.

The "low crime rate among the dead" point is a bit fatuous - I imagine it must be fairly low among the 'life without the possibility of parole' prisoners as well.

Revenant said...

But that was precisely the point I went on to make later, ie. that there are other far more important factors which include levels of poverty and availability of guns.

That was *a* point you made, sure. But you also used the lower murder rate of Europe to "prove" that capital punishment wasn't a factor at all. If you want to discard that claim and switch to a claim that capital punishment discourages homicide, but as much as other factors encourage it, that's fine. No argument there.

The lower murder rate in western Europe clearly demonstrate that, at the very least, capital punishment must be a fairly trivial factor compared to all the others.

That's entirely wrong.

Like I pointed out in my earlier post, capital punishment isn't applied at all in most of the United States and is rarely applied in most of the remainder. We have executed 1097 people in the last 32 years, which works out to one execution per 578 murders nationwide.

In our most murderous areas the ratio is even more ridiculously skewed. Here are the ten most murderous cities in the United States, along with the average number of yearly executions for the entire *state* since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976:

Detroit: no executions
Baltimore: 0.16
New Orleans: 0.84
Newark: no executions
St Louis: 2.06
Oakland: 0.41
Washington DC: no executions
Cincinnati: 0.81
Philadelphia: 0.09
Buffalo: no executions

So if, as this study found, the existence of the death penalty is having any positive effect at all -- despite murderers having a less than 0.2% chance of execution, and zero chance of execution in many major cities -- then common sense indicates that the death penalty must have a major impact on crime rates in comparison to its infrequent usage.

And by pointing that out, you've also neatly demolished your own argument that "execution is what works best"

Not at all. Execution is what works best. Imprisoned murderers do sometimes kill again, whereas executed murderers never do. It is therefore obvious that execution must necessarily lower the murder rate unless execution itself somehow causes additional murders through some unknown means. The evidence is that it doesn't; quite the opposite.

because whatever we've been doing in Europe has clearly been more effective

I guess it depends on what problem you want to solve. If your goal is to reduce the risk of being killed by your neighbor then the European approach of concentrating all lethal force in the hands of the government works well.

If, on the other hand, your goal is not to be killed at all then it is far from clear that the European approach is the smart one, given the propensity of European governments to periodically mass-murder their own citizenry. As high as the United States' civilian murder rate has been -- and it has always been high compared to Europe -- you're generally much more likely to get murdered in Europe. It is just that the guy murdering you will have permission from a government.

The "low crime rate among the dead" point is a bit fatuous - I imagine it must be fairly low among the 'life without the possibility of parole' prisoners as well.

It is greater than the rate among the executed, i.e. "zero". Prisoners murder other prisoners, and occasionally guards.

Summer Anne said...

The death penalty seems to be, in reference to this study or not, one of those issues (much like abortion) that all of the articulate, impassioned debate we can each muster will do little to change each other's opinions.

But, just for the hell of it, let me just say that I think there is an essential disagreement here that goes beyond the death penalty specifically: I can not even begin to fathom the argument being made that wrongful imprisonment is in any way comparable to wrongful execution (murder!). Here are some things, for starters, that you can do in prison that you can't do if you're dead:
- read books
- communicate with your family
- dream
- evolve
- continue to try to prove your innocence.

Shying away from an appropriate penalty out of fear of punishing the occasional innocent is an inappropriate conflation.

This, specifically, highlights the key problem in our debate, which is that I could never consider the fear of allowing my government to punish the 'occasional' innocent with death to be an 'inappropriate conflation.' It's wrong, period, and I refuse to condone the possibility. I agree that we should be proactive in lessening the overall loss in innocent lives, but I believe that there are better ways to achieve that goal.

And obviously, you will have plenty to say in response to this because I will not have budged your position one bit and you won't mine. Fin.

Freder Frederson said...

Yes, but the Constitution provides both for capital crimes and for depriving people of life (after due process). So capital punishment clearly is on the table as an available deterrent for criminals.

Never said it didn't. But we could certainly ban the death penalty through statute (as some states have), constitutional amendment, or even the Supreme Court finding that "evolving standards of decency" had rendered it cruel and unusual punishment. (I'm sure the latter would drive you round the bend.)

jmk said...

Revenant - "That was *a* point you made, sure. But you also used the lower murder rate of Europe to "prove" that capital punishment wasn't a factor at all. If you want to discard that claim and switch to a claim that capital punishment discourages homicide, but as much as other factors encourage it, that's fine."

No, I categorically do not wish to switch to that claim. I never said that the European statistics proved capital punishment wasn't a factor, merely that common sense could tell you that it was likely the conclusions of the study would eventually be shown to be false. I then, for the sake of argument, premised the rest of my points on the assumption that the conclusions ARE justified - but that's not the same as conceding the point myself.

You, on the other hand, have made quite an important concession -

"I guess it depends on what problem you want to solve. If your goal is to reduce the risk of being killed by your neighbor then the European approach of concentrating all lethal force in the hands of the government works well."

This is highly significant because, in the real world, it's the only problem we in western Europe actually need to solve - your implied suggestion that a country like Germany is going to abandon sixty years of democracy, rip up the European Convention on Human Rights and start mass murdering its own citizens again is so patently absurd it's not even worth considering.

"Execution is what works best. Imprisoned murderers do sometimes kill again, whereas executed murderers never do...It [the murder rate for life without parole prisoners] is greater than the rate among the executed, i.e. "zero". Prisoners murder other prisoners, and occasionally guards."

This is a very weak argument. The murder rate among these prisioners must be miniscule. And I'd be willing to bet it's considerably fewer than the number of wrongly convicted prisoners presently on Death Row.

Summer Anne - "And obviously, you will have plenty to say in response to this because I will not have budged your position one bit and you won't mine. Fin."

But that's what makes these debates so worthwhile and productive! Let's do abortion next week!

Synova said...

Sort of like saying, I'm right and you're stubborn, isn't it?

I haven't argued that we ought to have capital punishment, only that it's not immoral and not murder. I understand that Summer seems to be saying that it's the killing of the occasional innocent person that is murder and she might not be claiming that the death penalty for the guilty is murder. I'm not sure, though.

I'm very suspicious of any claim about Europe and crime because I see too much on the news... riots and burning cars in France... blown up houses in England... and of course there are the protests against euthanasia that make the news over here.

Meanwhile, over here on this side of the pond, we've got protesters trying to save the life of convicted murderers who cold bloodedly took it on themself to permanently take the life of shopkeepers minding their business... not even an act of passion. But he wrote a children's book and isn't that sweet!

No chance of having made a mistake and no chance that an innocent person is being killed by the state.

I think that the protests that we must never never possibly execute an innocent person are weak or why did so many rally to that man? And now he's dead, just like his victims, and just like he deserves to be dead.

Now... there are cases, certainly, where I don't want a horrible murderer to be killed because it's almost like *getting off*. A dead person can't be punished for his or her crimes either. The *really* bad ones... we want them to live in misery as long as possible.

(Heh... that would make a good SF story idea... keep the prisoner alive for *all* of their life sentences, no matter how many lifetimes they have to serve... so they can be punished for all that they did and not just punished until they die half-way through their first life term. Ha!)

jmk said...

Synova - "I'm very suspicious of any claim about Europe and crime because I see too much on the news... riots and burning cars in France... blown up houses in England..."

Nobody is claiming there isn't a large amount of crime in Europe (I believe the rate of certain low-level crimes is actually higher in the UK than the US) but the salient point is that the murder rate is much lower. You mentioned France - for some reason the murder rate in France is staggeringly low. The last I heard it was ten times lower than in the UK, so it must be a tiny fraction of what it is in the US.

As an aside, from what I've seen of the US media, that's the absolute last place you should look for an accurate picture of what's going on in Europe, let alone anywhere else in the world.

Revenant said...

Never said it didn't. But we could certainly ban the death penalty through statute (as some states have), constitutional amendment, or even the Supreme Court finding that "evolving standards of decency" had rendered it cruel and unusual punishment. (I'm sure the latter would drive you round the bend.)

It would "drive me around the bend" for the simple reason that it would clearly be a lie -- if current standards held that it was wrong, it would be removed by legislative action and the Court wouldn't be needed.

Revenant said...

your implied suggestion that a country like Germany is going to abandon sixty years of democracy, rip up the European Convention on Human Rights and start mass murdering its own citizens again is so patently absurd it's not even worth considering.

It isn't like they abandoned a 1600 year tradition of Christian respect for human life the last time around, after all. :)

Seriously, though, talk to me after western Europe goes an entire human lifetime without any government-sponsored mass murder. You haven't managed it yet -- not in thousands of years of recorded history. Does the current generation of leaders truly honor and respect human rights? Hm, maybe. Of course, their parents were busy running Communist and Fascist states, helping Germans load Jews into cattle cars, and so forth. Apparently they switched from monsters to saints in one generation; nice work. Of course, where's the source of confidence that there won't be a similar, reverse switch in a single generation?

When you concentrate all the power in the hands of the few, as you have done, you inevitably get tyranny, followed by murder and other forms of oppression. It happens every time; it is part of human nature. You've been fortunate for the last half-century in that the United States has babysat the continent, slapping down uppity nations and using hard and soft power to oppose and suppress tyrannical forces. But do you really think we'll babysit you forever -- or that we'll always care enough about European tyranny to spend billions preventing it?

This is a very weak argument.

I'm afraid your argument -- that there's no difference between "zero" and "greater than zero" -- is the weak one here. It doesn't matter how much greater than zero the murder rate is among lifers, because the fact that it IS greater than zero is sufficient to prove that execution is better at preventing murder than life imprisonment is.

I'd be willing to bet it's considerably fewer than the number of wrongly convicted prisoners presently on Death Row.

The number of people wrongly executed, not the number on Death Row. Being wrongly sent to death row is no worse than being wrongly jailed; it is wrongful *executions* that we need to watch out for.

And considering that there are more murders committed in prison BY murderers in a given year than there are executions, it is obviously true that there must be more murder victims than wrongful executions.

The Den Mother said...

Sorry that I don't have time to more than scan all the comments, so this may have been addressed already...

An Edjamikated Redneck:
I have to contend that ther is one difference in these 4 cases: The death penalty is imposed on a duly convicted adult; not an innocent child, a disable adult, or another individual who has not violated societies' rules.

There is one more difference: the death penalty is the only form of killing that the state doesn't merely permit (to varying degrees depending on where you are) but actively engages in the killing.

rjschwarz said...

There is no other way to put it. Liberals are much more tolerant of crime and much more sympathetic to criminals. Opposition to the death penalty is just a logic bit of this world view. This sympathy can be seen in prisons with cable television and weekend furloughs as well and pushes for felons to be allowed to vote.

All this would be much more understandable if they didn't try to disarm the victims at the same time.

Thomas said...

I've never been impressed with the use as an argument against the death penalty the possibility that an innocent person might be put to death.

Of all the ways government can accidentally kill you --

-- from erroneously sentencing to prison, where you might get murdered or get raped and contract a fatal case of AIDS, running you over with a postal truck, sending you off to war and then blasting you to eternity with a misplaced friendly-fire JDAM, to a cop mistaking your cell phone for a gun and riddling you with four magazines' worth of bullets --

-- accidental execution doesn't even register on the scale. We appeal and re-appeal and examine and re-examine every case to the point of absurdity. The mere theoretical possibility of an accidental execution -- when we accept fatal government errors in so many other cases -- is not a compelling argument.

michaelyi said...

Those who claim long-term imprisonment is more humane than capital punishment for what have historically been capital crimes in nations like the USA forget how inhumanely the convicts typically treat their guards.

I suggest that the opponents of the death penalty each do a stint as a guard at a super-max prison before they prattle on again about their uninformed opinions of what's "humane" and what isn't.

jmk said...

Revenant - "Seriously, though, talk to me after western Europe goes an entire human lifetime without any government-sponsored mass murder. You haven't managed it yet -- not in thousands of years of recorded history. Does the current generation of leaders truly honor and respect human rights? Hm, maybe. Of course, their parents were busy running Communist and Fascist states, helping Germans load Jews into cattle cars, and so forth. Apparently they switched from monsters to saints in one generation; nice work. Of course, where's the source of confidence that there won't be a similar, reverse switch in a single generation?"

Well yes, you appear to have gone completely into 'barking mad' mode here, so it's difficult to know how to respond. To try and take your arguments seriously for a moment (not easy) - do I agree with you that Europeans are afflicted with some sort of permanent genetic/cultural propensity for mass murder that will always recur regardless of circumstance, but which Americans are somehow miraculously free of? Er, no. Call me strange, but no I don't.

And as for this completely contrived test of 'no mass murder within a human lifetime', you've left the US with a bit of a problem as well - or are we just airbrushing the likes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki out of history again?

jmk said...

"When you concentrate all the power in the hands of the few, as you have done, you inevitably get tyranny, followed by murder and other forms of oppression."

Given that every single part of western Europe is fully democratic (the only possible exception I can think of is the island of Sark), this statement is utterly meaningless - until of course you substitute the word 'power' with 'guns'. Then it suddenly makes perfect sense, but it also means you're viewing guns as the sole source of power in a society, which is a rather narrow and bleak world view by any standards.

"I'm afraid your argument -- that there's no difference between "zero" and "greater than zero" -- is the weak one here. It doesn't matter how much greater than zero the murder rate is among lifers, because the fact that it IS greater than zero is sufficient to prove that execution is better at preventing murder than life imprisonment is."

When I said you were making a weak argument, what I was getting at was that - even though I disagree with them profoundly - there are any number of far more convincing arguments in favour of the death penalty than the prevention of inmates killing each other. If you're really saying that's the main aim, wouldn't it be simpler to just increase security in jails?

Revenant said...

do I agree with you that Europeans are afflicted with some sort of permanent genetic/cultural propensity for mass murder that will always recur regardless of circumstance, but which Americans are somehow miraculously free of? Er, no. Call me strange, but no I don't.

Hopefully you'll read this after you come down from your little acid trip and read the post I actually wrote.

First of all, I pointed out that the abuse of power is a natural human trait -- not one restricted to Europeans.

Secondly, I never implied the difference between Europeans and Americans is genetic. There are, however, massive cultural differences, and the big one here is that Europeans tolerate the concentration of power in the hands of the government in a way that Americans never have. The reason why European governments mass-murder Europeans and the American government doesn't do that to Americans isn't that Americans are inherently nicer people. It is that your governments can pull it off and ours cannot. The population of the country has too much personal power to be subdued; any attempt to do so would make the occupation of Iraq look like a day at the county fair.

And as for this completely contrived test of 'no mass murder within a human lifetime', you've left the US with a bit of a problem as well - or are we just airbrushing the likes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki out of history again?

I'm talking about murder of citizens by their own governments, not warfare. If you want to get into deaths from warfare then Europe's standing gets even shakier.

Given that every single part of western Europe is fully democratic

You're welcome.

it also means you're viewing guns as the sole source of power in a society, which is a rather narrow and bleak world view by any standards.

Bleak? Maybe. Accurate, yes.

The capacity for lethal force is not the sole source of power, but it trumps all others for the simple reason that it is hard to exercise any form of power when you're dead. If you have a powerful argument for what you think is right and I have a gun and the will to use it, I win. The only ways to avoid that reality are either (a) to hope that the people with the guns aren't willing to use them (the Gandhi method) or (b) to have a balancing degree of lethal force backing you up.

As for democracy, well, the EU is antidemocratic and steadily gaining in power; most of western Europe enjoys less self-determination than it did a decade ago. But you are, in any case, mistaking democracy for benevolence; post-WW1 Italy, Germany, and Japan were democracies, too. It is easy to see, for example, a new racist/nationalist movement, probably anti-Muslim, arising in any of several European countries, France especially.

there are any number of far more convincing arguments in favour of the death penalty than the prevention of inmates killing each other.

I wasn't making an argument for the death penalty. I was pointing out that one of the arguments being used against the death penalty -- "life imprisonment is just as effective" -- is objectively wrong.

Sam Hall said...

I look at the death penalty like this. In WWII, about 2/3 of the men in the Army were drafted. Some of those men really didn't want to go, but we forced them. Some of those men died. We said it was for the good of the country. OK.
If we put someone to death for a crime, that is more moral than forcing them to die in a war they didn't want to fight. And if we get the wrong person once in a while, well it is for the good of the country.

jmk said...

"'Given that every single part of western Europe is fully democratic'

You're welcome."

Do you know I literally burst out laughing when I first read that, so thanks for that. I really had no idea American right-wingers were quite so delusional (well, perhaps I had an inkling). If you're banging on about the Second World War yet again, the uncomfortable truth for all of us is that Stalin's Soviet Union was just as responsible for saving Europe from the Nazis as America or Britain were (perhaps more so). I think you'll also find there were a lot of people in countries like France and Norway who fought for the liberation of their own people, and who might take some exception to the notion that the US or anyone else singlehandedly 'gave' them the democracy they risked their own lives to win.

"I'm talking about murder of citizens by their own governments, not warfare."

Oh how terribly convenient. So mass murder is OK as long as its something you do to innocent Japanese women and children, and not your own people. By that standard, the Nazis were perfectly within their rights as long as they were only murdering foreign Jews, and as long as they labelled it an act of 'war'.

"As for democracy, well, the EU is antidemocratic and steadily gaining in power; most of western Europe enjoys less self-determination than it did a decade ago."

Utter nonsense. Power in the EU is exercised jointly by the elected national governments in the Council of Ministers, and by the European Parliament which is directly elected. What's antidemocratic about that? The EU has also been far more of a force than the US in shaping the recent democratisation of Eastern Europe - if it hadn't been for the incentive of EU membership, there would be a good few more countries that looked like present-day Belarus.

"But you are, in any case, mistaking democracy for benevolence; post-WW1 Italy, Germany, and Japan were democracies, too." Are you seriously suggesting that democracy in a single one of the 27 EU states is remotely as fragile or unstable as it was in the Weimar Republic? (You probably are suggesting that, but at this late stage I can only urge you to look a bit more closely and see how wide of the mark you are). And yes, there are far right/racist parties in many European countries, but a) that's not a new phenomenon, b) in most cases they've remained peripheral, and c) the National Front in France actually suffered a severe setback last year.

Peter said...

I worked a rural county my whole career so I only was first on the scene of maybe forty-five murders. Well more than half were domestic, over ninety percent involved people with long criminal histories.
There is a reason that law enforcement officers overwhelmingly support the death penalty. It's not that we are particularly cruel, it's that we see it up close and personal.
DNA or the lack of it, tells nothing about who committed the crime, only who left DNA at the scene. So there is skin under the vic's nails. That proves that the vic scratched someone, not that others weren't involved. DNA in the vagina or other orifaces proves that someone left it. Not that that was the only one.
There are no magic wands. There is a pretty good chance that by not executing murderers we codemn the innocent. But at least we get to feel all moral. I'm sure the future vics will thank us.

Ofc. Krupke said...

the uncomfortable truth for all of us is that Stalin's Soviet Union was just as responsible for saving Europe from the Nazis as America or Britain were (perhaps more so).

Winning against the Nazis, perhaps. Establishing democracy, not so much. There's a reason it was the western part of Europe that had democracy first.

I think you'll also find there were a lot of people in countries like France and Norway who fought for the liberation of their own people, and who might take some exception to the notion that the US or anyone else singlehandedly 'gave' them the democracy they risked their own lives to win.

Indeed they did fight, and bravely. But they couldn't muster the force the US did. The US did not win the war or vouchsafe European democracy alone, nor is anyone claiming that. The point is that it would not have happened without the American effort. To dispute that is simply ridiculous.

Dan said...

WOW. Fascinating thread. People keep coming back to the differences between the US and Europe, though, and for me as an American of northern European extraction, it is pretty simple.

Americans culturally are much closer to to where people came from. We're savages with a much thinner veneer of sophistication and refinement than most. We're more willing to use force to achieve our objectives, we distill and simplify problems to make them easier to solve, and we're pretty much ready to cut any Gordian knot that gets too troublesome. We're FIERCELY individualist and we distrust any government on a scale larger than township (and those are suspect at times too). Distasteful things like racism, sexism and the like are often in-your-face, or at least not very far under the surface.

Europeans seem to have spent a great deal of time and energy taming their animal instincts. They're more refined, have more delicate sensibilities (unless truly aroused to anger) and they fiercely suppress their violent tendencies and do their best to suppress them in others. They like to understand every aspect of a problem before they attempt a solution. They're generally better at living harmoniously together and place a lot of trust in centralized government. Racism, sexism and so forth are very much there, but are suppressed almost more than violence.

Where do I come down on this? Like I said, I'm an American. Europeans also tend to place a lot of emphasis on ancestry. Americans outside the self-identified elite classes place more value on who you are and how you act. My northern European ancestry means that I eat lefse on holidays and occasionally say "uff da fee da". That's ALL that means in my life.

I'm a proud American savage, in favor of the death penalty for most of the reasons cited in this incredible thread and knowingly dismissive of most (but not all) of the arguments I've seen against it.

It's a blunt instrument and we could (and should) limit its application more than we do, but goddammit, it freaking well WORKS.

jmk said...

"The US did not win the war or vouchsafe European democracy alone, nor is anyone claiming that."

I hate to tell you this, but I think a minority of your countrymen are claiming precisely that, and have done so with increasing smugness for decades. I'm quite happy to acknowledge that the war would not have been won without the contribution of the US - but I hope others would acknowledge that it would not have been won without the USSR either. Or without the European resistance movements. Or without the UK. Or without other Commonwealth countries. Take ANY of those out of the equation and its doubtful total victory would have been achieved.

We're obviously getting way off topic, but I can't resist going back to a point Revenant made earlier -

"The reason why European governments mass-murder Europeans and the American government doesn't do that to Americans isn't that Americans are inherently nicer people. It is that your governments can pull it off and ours cannot. The population of the country has too much personal power to be subdued; any attempt to do so would make the occupation of Iraq look like a day at the county fair."

Having reflected on this scenario overnight, just one little query - what happens when your government turns its massive stockpile of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons against you? Now that's what I really call 'the concentration of lethal force in a few hands'. But I see your point, though - I wouldn't want to face a nuclear missile without my trusty handgun.

submandave said...

It seems to me the main difference in the death caused by abortion and euthanasia as opposed to the death penalty is who is deciding that death is appropriate. It seems somewhat ironic to me that the liberal argument, that is often seen as advoacing increased government intervention in the lives of citizens, prefers to leave matters of life and death in the hands to the individual. Except, of course, in the case of self defense, where it is your right to defend but not to have the tools available to adequately do so.

It seems that much of the death penalty opposition, as well as many other government nanny-state protectionist ideas, greatly increased with the decline of committed faith. For a person who is committed to a belief system that promises a reward beyond this existence, death is not the worst thing that can happen. Even to be wrongly accused and put to death, a deplorable situation and to be avoided if possible, may not be considered worse than being incarcerated for the rest of your natural life, locked away from society and the ones you love. For this person perhaps it is better to simply wait for them in Heaven.

submandave said...

"[W]hat happens when your government turns its massive stockpile of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons against you?"

Not to quibble finer points in the face of such grandiose fantasy, but in anticipation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, President Nixon terminated the United States offensive biological weapons program by executive order. Stocks of pathogens and the entire biological arsenal were destroyed between May 1971 and February 1973. Likewise, as of March 2006 the US had destroyed over 36% of its chemical weapons stocks in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (more than all other declared CW possessors combined), including over 86% of its most lethal weapons (specifically VX and sarin nerve agent).

Yes, one reason the US does nto have the same genocide track record as Europe is a matter of capability. The greatest reason, though, is that the majority of Americans do not view other Americans of different race, religion or background as "the other." Against even an armed "other" the might of the US government cannot be contended, as evidenced by the Indian Wars (the closest the US has ever come to a national policy of genocide). As long as Americans, in all their shapes, sizes and flavors, are viewed as "Americans" I don't see genocide as a real potential. This, however, helps to highlight the importance of controlled immigration. The vast majority of those opposed to illegal immigration are not bigots standing in opposition to "the other" nor do I belive that we are seriously in danger of large-scale government backed violence, but fighting to preserve America as a melting pot where individuals and cultures come together as opposed to a balkanized state (such as Yugoslavia) has legitimate importance.

jmk said...

"Not to quibble finer points in the face of such grandiose fantasy" - it was an extremely grandiose fantasy, but of course it was someone else's fantasy which I had simply taken to its logical and absurd extreme. I was trying to point out that the idea that European governments are bound to turn the guns on their defenceless civilians and commit mass murder is as silly as saying the Anerican government will inevitably nuke their own defenceless cities.

Of course the US government is highly unlikely to engage in genocide or democide - but that's not because of any cultural reason, but simply because the US is a long-established, stable, liberal democratic state that generally adheres to the rule of law (at least within its own boundaries). The same applies to EVERY SINGLE western European country. It is astonishing to see how many people don't seem to recognise what is blindingly obvious to anyone who actually lives here in western Europe - that fascism, communism and every other authoritarian form of government is dead, buried and soon to be virtually forgotten in this part of the world. There is no going back - except it seems in the wild imaginings of a few right-wingers across the pond who want to perpetuate a myth of American uniqueness.