On June 17, 2015, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot and killed 9 people and injured one more. Among the dead were a senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney. After a brief manhunt, Roof was arrested and confessed to the murders and stated that he had been trying to instigate a race war. Although support for the death penalty has been declining in the US, there has been little negative reaction to the state’s announcement that in this case, the death penalty would be sought.
There probably never was a defendant who more richly deserved the most severe penalty provided by law. The mass murderer was indicted under South Carolina’s hate crime provisions; Roof has shown absolutely no remorse and in fact he appears to be proud of his act. Roof is an unrepentant, arrogant, racist who took innocent lives for no reason beyond his all-consuming hatred for his victims and anyone else of colour.
The disparity between the number of executions of blacks v. whites and the possibility of executing an innocent person are the two most persuasive arguments for the abolition of the death sentence in the US; and they don’t apply here. Roof is the poster boy for the imposition of the ultimate sanction.
Nevertheless, I take the view that, even in the case of this repugnant piece of human filth, the death penalty is wrong, it shouldn’t be imposed on Dylann Roof, and ought to be abolished.
I chose this particular case to use in my discussion of the death penalty because I want to be perfectly clear: although I have used arguments like its ineffectiveness as a deterrent, as well as the racial bias in its imposition, and the possibility of judicial error, these are not my fundamental objections to state sanctioned killing. If somehow those objections could be persuasively countered, I would still maintain that abolition of the death penalty is a moral requirement of any civilisation.
The ultimate penalty is reserved for cases in which there is the calculated and cold blooded taking of human life; the presumption here is that human life is the ultimate value, and respect for it is demanded and expected of every member of our society. I argue that it is hard to make that case when the state takes it upon itself to decide that one human life does not have ultimate value; in fact, it has no value at all, and can legally be taken by other human beings. To execute a murderer is to say at one and the same time that life is supremely valuable and that is not, as we reserve the right to end one if society deems it appropriate. The logic doesn’t work.
Of course, that logical argument can be parsed and debated ad infinitum and simple logical propositions are not particularly persuasive when we are dealing with an emotionally loaded issue like this one. The argument that I find the most persuasive when someone speaks for the abolition of capital punishment is that I do not want to be part of a society that makes it legal to take another human being’s life in a calculated, premeditated act of judicial killing. To support our right to kill with judicial approval diminishes me and coarsens the very fabric of what passes for civilisation. We have already agreed that the most heinous crime of all is cold-blooded, calculated, premeditated homicide; I can’t be part of that, even if I have the law on my side.
A society that condones brutality – and make no mistake, execution of a human being is brutality – and even imposes it is quite simply a society of brutes. And somehow even proponents of capital punishment are aware that the death penalty is obscene. If the deterrent argument worked or even if the retributive argument had any legs, we would have public, even televised executions. Surely if everyone actually watched the death of a convicted murderer, any deterrent effect would be multiplied. And, as to the retributive justice theory, if society is going to find some sense of closure or feel that some sort of scale of justice is balanced by the death for a death, surely that sense of justice would be enhanced by having justice done openly and without apology or shame. That isn’t the case, however. Executions are carried out furtively at the crack of dawn or in the dead of night in front of a few select witnesses. There seems to be a sense that, if the executions were public and open, we would be demeaned by the spectacle; that sick, voyeuristic sadists would get their perverse jollies from seeing someone die. Of course, that is almost certainly true. The sight of a deliberate killing is coarse and ugly; coarse and ugly souls will love it. But if it is the right thing to do, why don’t we own up to it and stop dispensing justice behind a screen?
The short answer is: because we know it’s wrong and we prefer to do wrongs with a minimum of scrutiny. We know that public executions would bring out the real nutjobs who love to witness or participate in brutality; even when executions are done with minimal fanfare, the death groupies show up at the doors of prisons where they are to be carried out and cheer for the cruelty that is going on inside. Burn, baby, burn. Are spectacles like that indicative of refined feelings? Are those vicious brutality junkies the kind of people from whom any reasonably enlightened person would take moral guidance? Far from it; those are the very worst of our species and it is their moral judgements upon which we rely to execute people.
If civilisation survives for much longer, historians will point with contempt at countries that continued to impose the death penalty after pretty much every developed country abolished it. Historically, the United States clung to slavery long after the civilised world had grown beyond the trade in human beings. It’s not too late for the US to get on the right side of history with respect to capital punishment. Wouldn’t it be nice for the US to occupy the moral high ground for a change?