Recently Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Justice Department would be seeking the death penalty in the case of Dylan Roof, the shooter in the South Carolina church massacre on June 17th 2015 (and someone will not be named for the rest of this article). My knee jerk reaction to this was “couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy…I hope it hurts like hell” followed by my recollection of the ‘sponge isn’t wet’ scene from “The Green Mile”. Judging from the reactions I’ve seen around the internet it seems I was not alone in these feelings. This ‘Hit him hard!’ reaction is a deeply visceral response to a horrific event. I am ill-equipped to do justice to the human scope of the tragic events in South Carolina in this brief space so I am instead going to look at the reactions to it and the AG’s announcement.
I actually took the time to physically sit down and examine the reaction within myself when it hit me because it created a disconnect within my own belief structure. On one hand I do, and always have, firmly believed that sentient life is the rarest and most valuable commodity in existence. On the other hand I found that I would happily play the role of carnifex for this pathetic example of humanity. And this isn’t a singular event; I have this same violent reaction to many of the most horrific crimes we hear and read about with depressing regularity. I am publicly on record on the radio show I produce (shameless plug: The Michael Dukes Show, weekdays from 6-9AM Alaska Time) that I would happily be the one to wield the cat o’nine tails and have the skin off the back of any adult who puts their hands on children.
But why is this reaction so viscerally satisfying? Do I conceal within my breast a secret sadist? Is it merely righteous anger? The more I consider it the more I realize that it exists in far more abundance than most people would realize. It is this same reaction that, partially, makes me and others like me a huge fan of Batman comics. There is something so satisfying about the idea that there could be someone or something out there that could put terror into the minds and hearts of those would prey on innocents. That someone was there to hurt them as much (and/or more) as they hurt us. Incidentally, one of my favorite bits of Dark Knight lore revolves around a conversation on the roof of the Gotham City Police Department between the Caped Crusader and the Commissioner Gordon about some information obtained from a human trafficker:
Gordon: “Do I want to know how you got this information?”
Batman: “Pain is an excellent motivator…45 minutes of it was more than enough.”
Batman: “I had the info after 10.”
Of course intellectually this is appalling and indefensible. There is no due process when it comes to a masked vigilante pounding the pulp out of you for no better reason than putting the fear into you. And yet…I can’t help but hope it was every bit as painful as it sounds–and yet this is about a fictional criminal. How much more intenseness do I feel in the case of a real-life situation involving flesh and blood victims?
So now we get to the real ‘meat’ of the issue. The United States, as represented by whomever leads for the prosecution, will be seeking the court’s sanction to end this man’s life as a punishment for his crimes. I flatter myself in thinking that at least a few of you, my dear readers, have had similar internal debates. How can I square the high value I place on human life while sanctioning the use of lethal force as judicial punishment? I won’t presume to provide any kind of definitive answer to this debate, but simply to illustrate how I reached my own conclusion.
The basic question is: Can I support execution as a judicial punishment? My answer for some time on this issue has been a two part response. I do believe that it can be an ‘effective’ (for lack of a better word) judicial punishment in theory, but I do not believe that it can be so in the United States. Essentially, I am in favor of on principle but not necessarily as practiced now. The sticking point I encounter when it comes time for bringing theory into practice is the eighth amendment to the United States constitution. For those who haven’t taken a civics course for awhile the text of amendment reads:
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Most often known for it’s final component, the 8th is generally the fulcrum around which the capitol punishment debate pivots–so constitutionally we must ask if the act of executing a criminal is either cruel or unusual or both.
To be cruel is defined as ‘to willfully or knowingly cause pain or distress to others’ (source: Dictionary.com). I will delve deeper into this in a few paragraphs but here I’ll just say that I see this as the key tripping point for capitol punishment in the United States. ‘Unusual‘ is defined as ‘not usual, common, or ordinary; uncommon in amount or degree or exceptional’. Sadly, I think we are on more solid ground here. According to the CDC there are roughly 16,121 murders in the United States each year, or about 44 per day (source: CDC.gov National Vital Statistics report). This extremely depressing statistic seems to preclude the possibility that executing someone could be considered ‘unusual’. So even if we say we emerge 50-50 from purely constitutional arguments we now need to consider non-constitutional arguments.
Two of the most common arguments made by those advocating capitol punishment are:
1) Some acts are too heinous for the perpetrator to be forgiven and/or rehabilitated
2) Executing criminals will act as a deterrent on future criminality
So lets tackle these in reverse order. Will executing this man, or someone like him, work to deter future criminal activity? My answer is that in theory it could, but not as practiced in the United States. For an execution to have a deterrent effect I believe they need to be both public and they need to be spectacles. People need to see them happening for them to have a deterrent effect. As they happen now, almost no one sees them and thus they are easily put out of mind. Yes, people are intellectually aware they occur and that surely has some effect on behavior, but not nearly so much as if criminals were being killed in public.
The next aspect I believe would be necessary for judicial executions to be an effective deterrent is spectacle. What I mean by this is that the method of execution must be so graphic and memorable that it makes a lasting impact on the public. It will sound odd to the American ear since executions are kept so insulated from the general public in this country, but even things like hangings can become so commonplace as to become a form of recreation. In former days in London, public hangings were a form of entertainment enjoyed across all social classes (imagine if we turned cable TV loose on it?). But here in America, to avoid punitive executions becoming blasé they would have to be horrific. Watch someone get torn apart by wild animals or lowered into molten metal and you bet a certain number of people will get scared onto the straight and narrow.
But lets circle back three paragraphs and resume our discussion on if an execution could/should be considered cruel. By the dictionary definition I think we must conclude they are. Even if we assume all contemporary methods of execution are totally painless, the second half of the definition includes causing distress. Even for the most hardened of scum it is hard to believe that the process leading up to the ‘big day’ is not at all distressing. To re-iterate an earlier point, I see a fundamental problem wherein the ability for capitol punishment to be effective is compromised by one the foundational principles of our nation.
In the end I think this debate is actually academic because long term, I don’t think ‘deterrent executions’ are effective enough to outweigh their downsides. I think the people you are trying to ‘scare straight’ are those inclined to commit petty crimes, or at least crimes of a much smaller scale than someone on death row (including our present subject who was deranged enough to walk into a church and murder nine people). That type of person is so completely detached from reality that I don’t think concepts like deterrence even apply to them. The second problem I see is that any state that makes a practice of executing it’s citizens–even criminals–in an ever escalating spiral of horrific death, will eventually end up with a dissatisfied citizenry and likely a revolution.
Now lets discuss the notion of ‘beyond forgiveness‘. We’re in murkier waters here since the standard of what is or is not within the scope of forgiveness is, by it’s nature, non-empirical and differs between individuals. This being said, I do believe there are certain individuals who are simply unable to conform to the laws and customs of living within a given society. The only reason humans are able to live in large groups is that everyone agrees to follow the rules established by the group, so the fact that some people simply won’t or can’t do so is the root of most of the problems on the planet. Forgiveness is in the eye of the beholder, but whether or not society as a whole can or should forgive an individual to the extent of reintegrating them into its ranks is a different matter.
If I am being totally honest on the subject of possible ‘rehabilitation’ for someone like our subject, my knee jerk reaction is ‘why bother’. I can honestly say I don’t see much of a point in this case and others like it, even if we don the most rose colored of glasses and take for granted the very doubtful possibility that our subject emerges from an extended prison stretch as a fully functioning and well-adjusted member of society. I cannot imagine a scenario that would ever send this person into much of a life. As a practical matter, I imagine they would face a lot of job interviews that went like this:
Employer: “Ah Mr. X, I see that you have a 55 year gap in your employment history. What happened there?”
Mr. X: “I was in maximum security prison for murdering nine people in a church in hopes of inciting a racial war.”
Employer: “I see…………well thank you so much for coming in, we will be in touch if we have something that is right for you…”
The proponents of rehabilitation have noble intentions, this I concede, but I believe they haven’t thought them through to their practical end in the laboratory of the real world. Our hypothetical rehabilitated prisoner seems likely to face a life of continued disappointment and slamming doors, which probably ends with him living on the tax payers’ largesse until he dies an embittered old man, assuming he doesn’t perpetrate some statistically likely future act of violence. On a less concrete note, and maybe this is just me over thinking, I have to believe that a healthy mind confronted with the reality that it had been responsible for mass murder would descend into the kind of existential despair that few people ever reach. How could it not?
However I think this is another moot point since I think we’re talking 1/1000 odds that our subject somehow emerges from a prison stretch as a well adjusted human being. Never mind how extremely unlikely it is that our subject would ever leave prison if he avoided execution. So in lieu of an execution, the most likely outcome is our subject would spend the rest of his life in a cell at taxpayer expense. There are those who will allow their passion on this issue to carry them into the rhetorical excess of equating life in super-max as somehow ‘hotel like’…but of course this is ridiculous. Regardless of having a room and meals provided, it is simply not a ‘good thing’ to be penned for the duration of your life. It is possible this even runs afoul of the ‘cruel’ part of ‘cruel and unusual’, although I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve heard it asserted that the prospect of a life sentence is actually a better deterrent than the threat of execution. This is, to me, debatable. I understand the reasoning but I think life sentences suffer ultimately from the same problem as execution, being so far removed from the public conscious that I think its possible effects are minimal.
If it seems like I am talking out of both sides of my mouth, it’s because I am. And in this case I actually think it is a good thing, especially when the subject of what’s being debated is a human life. We should struggle to reach a conclusion, and it should be something we agonize over.
So what conclusion did I ultimately reach? In the end, like every other decision made by every other human being in history, our subject made a choice. Regardless of whether or not our subject had some underlying mental issue, perhaps a flaw in his brain, it still led to the brutal, heartless murder of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson. Every decision ever made is as serious as the consequences that result from it and the consequences could not have been worse in this case. So in the end, I’m forced to say that there is only one course of action: he must die.
Despite my reverence for life, despite constitutional objections, and despite issues I have with the efficacy of the process, in the end I don’t see that society has a place for this monster, rehabilitated or otherwise. It’s true that his death won’t change anything for his victims or their families, but what other option is there? More than anything else I base my worldview and political philosophy on choice and accountability. I am never eager to limit the freedoms of choice for others, but by the same token I also don’t believe in shielding them from the consequences. NOT killing this festering pile of human garbage simply leaves said garbage in the corner for years and decades to come, as some sort of hypothetical deterrent and a drain on the resources of the society he so clearly has no place in.
…and finally, yes, I do hope it hurts like hell.