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Society is Right to Desire Vengeance


Paul Tuns

 Author Notes

Freelance writer

 Essay - 2/23/2000

Illinois' Republican Governor George Ryan recently suspended all executions in the state citing a number of errors committed by the state's judicial system. He called for the moratorium saying, "I have grave concerns about our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row." Death penalty opponents point to this as a victory and vindication of their claims that innocent people die at the hands of a blood-thirsty state in its quest for justice. But note Ryan's sentence carefully: "putting them on death row." He did not say that any innocent person was killed.

Despite the relentless efforts of anti-capital punishment crusaders, there is not a scintilla of evidence that an innocent person has ever been killed by the state. At a recent conference called Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, 28 of the known 73 Americans ultimately released from death row were paraded at Northwestern University in Chicago. But such cases illustrate that the appeals system works as it is supposed to, not that the death penalty kills innocent people.

Ryan's actions may have spurred others to reconsider their unconditional support for the punishment. As many as a dozen states have either their legislatures or governors looking at such a move. Joe Lockhart, spokesperson for U.S. President Bill Clinton, said the president will study the possibility of suspending the death penalty at the federal level.

Emotional appeals such as this one - that innocents will die - is the latest attempt by those who oppose capital punishment to sway the public to their side. Before this they said capital punishment doesn't deter crime. For instance, Don Morgenson, a psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, writes in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, capital punishment supporters "have a moral obligation to bring forward convincing evidence that the use of the death penalty makes all of our streets safer places to play."

Capital punishment, supporters say, doesn't deter because the 12-year average delay between the commission of the crime and the execution is too long. If the system sometimes accidentally condemns innocent people, it is necessary to allow a full and lengthy appeals process.

That said, in one important way capital punishment does deter: Executed criminals cannot kill again. Even Amnesty International admits that 1% of paroled murderers are again convicted for murder. And according to the U.S. Justice Department, one in 12 of the more than 3,500 death-row inmates have a previous murder conviction; if those criminals had been executed, 297 lives could have been saved, and that's using the naive assumption that each murderer had only one victim.

But despite Morgenson's admonition that capital punishment supporters must show that it deters crime, deterrence is not, or at least should not, be the reason to support this ultimate punishment; justice is. Therefore, it is not wrongful convictions or deterrence that is the issue.

There are two concepts key to the notion of punishment and thus the death penalty debate: retribution and vengeance.

Retribution is punishment for punishment's sake, the idea that wrong-doers should pay a penalty for their crime. Furthermore, the punishment should fit the crime. As the legal scholar Ernest van den Haag wrote in the Harvard Law Review Association, "The severity and finality of the death penalty is appropriate to the seriousness and finality of murder."

Essential to justice is the notion of proportionality. Punishment that is not proportionate is unjust. Retribution for the crime committed is the central concern of the penal system. Thus, this eliminates reformation, deterrence and many other side issues many pundits and academics want to discuss.

The 19th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant argued punishment is just only when the scales of justice are equal: "Retaliation ... is the only Principle which ... can definitely assign both the quality and the quantity of a just penalty." This is certainly true in the case of husband-killer Bettie Lou Beets, who is scheduled to be executed tomorrow in Texas. Her defenders argue she should be granted a reprieve and life-imprisonment instead, but this would hardly balance Kant's scales of justice.

The second purpose of punishment is vengeance, a word that surely worries many intelligent and well-meaning people. But the law can and should be expressive. Society has a right, even a duty, to express its outrage. In a word, it has a right to vengeance. To not condemn vicious crimes is not a sign of society's enlightenment but of its decadence. As Washington Post columnist George Will said in defending the use of capital punishment in the case of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, punishment civilizes "the wholesome ... desire for vengeance against the vicious."

Vengeance is nothing more (but this is much) than the desire for retribution.

David Gelernter, a Yale professor maimed by the Unabomber, says in his book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, "we show our respect for the dead, and proclaim the value of human life, by taking the trouble to execute murderers." Gelernter recognizes the death penalty's symbolic importance (as vengeance) but admits the general public "barely comprehends" that symbolism. It fails to comprehend its symbolic importance, in part, because death penalty abolitionists have introduced these side issues of deterrence and wrongful convictions.

Society must have the right to express its outrage and provide a punishment that fits the crime. In fact, nothing short of taking the life of the most brutal criminals could satisfy these two components of punishment. That's why George Ryan has merely suspended the use of capital punishment and why the federal and other state governments should not end its use. Society can, as Ryan has, still accept its validity even as it examines any concerns about its implementation.

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