Friday, June 18, 2010

"Critics say Utah execution method is barbaric"

Convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad early this morning in Utah. As usual, critics have voiced opposition to the death penalty in general, and to death by firing squad in particular. This headline, decrying this particular practice as barbaric, has caught my attention.

A gigantic part of our problem as a global, modern society is encapsulated in this headline. It's quite true that the method is barbaric, but the method is not the problem. The problem is that as a society, we still have a punishment-based ethics. The idea of punishment itself is barbaric. It might even be that the idea of justice itself is barbaric, although I'd have to think about it for a while before going out on that limb.

We must move past this idea that crimes need to be punished. Definitely, let's have some penalties in place to prevent or at least diminish crimes, but let's not think of the penalties in terms of punishment and justice. Let's think of them in terms of deterrence. One might propose that thinking about them differently has no practical effect, but consider: the punishment model waits for someone to commit a crime, then make a public spectacle of them to deter other potential offenders, via fear. The deterrence model opens us up to realize that penalties are only a tiny part of what we can do to reduce crime. We can look into a crime and determine its causes and contributing factors. Some are obvious: poverty, lack of education, lack of hope. How much gang warfare could be eliminated if potential gang members could get a good education, especially while they're young? I'm betting that a lot of it would. How many robberies could be avoided if potential robbers weren't dirt poor, and had some hope for the future? Many, I bet.

We could do more to reduce white-collar crime as well, such as the Enron fiasco. There will always be greedy people, but we could create laws that make it far, far harder for greedy people to harm others. The first thing that comes to my mind is transparency. We could set up independent watchdog organizations to keep an eye on people who might be tempted to selfishly benefit themselves at others' expense. If we can keep the internet open and free, we might not even need official watchdogs: if we had laws requiring operational and financial transparency, average Joes would turn out by the millions to keep an eye out for unethical behavior. With a system like this in place, we wouldn't have so many gigantic crimes harming so many people, because the shenanigans would be caught before they could grow to devastating proportions. And these are just my naive ideas. What if we had expert psychologists and sociologists, criminologists and ethical philosophers thinking up crime deterrence ideas, rather than schmoes like me? We could be amazing.

Thinking specifically about murder cases, and the "justice" of executing murderers. Obviously, murder is a horrible crime, second only to torture. But do the loved ones of murder victims truly benefit from the death of the murderer? Do torture victims truly benefit from the severe punishment of their attackers? I think not. I think that the vast majority of murderers and torturers are mentally ill, and should be treated as such. No, we should not let them run around loose in the streets, as they are a danger to us all. But they could be kept in high-security mental institutions where they could receive treatment and perhaps some of them could even become, in a limited way, productive members of society. Maybe some of them, after treatment, would begin to realize the horror of their crimes, and even experience genuine regret based on empathy for their victims, instead of the cheap kind of regret born of fear of punishment. How much better closure would victims attain if their attacker wrote a sincere apology? I think that this would be far more healing than seeing an attacker treated like an animal for the rest of his life, or shot, or electrocuted, or poisoned.

The punishment mentality receives enormous support from religion, especially Christianity and Islam, whose god is a punisher. This is not a good god. These are not good religions. They are not good for society. We must find better ways if we are to survive.

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