Opinion

The Great Debate

from Reihan Salam:

Reality check: Death penalty is too expensive to make sense

Handout of revamped lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison

Last week saw the first executions in the United States since the botched lethal injection of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett, which drew renewed attention to the death penalty. Despite a sharp decrease in support for the death penalty -- from 78 percent as recently as 1996, to 55 percent in a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center -- the practice remains on the books in 32 states. This reflects the fact that support for the death penalty is uneven, with conservatives and Republicans far more likely to support it than liberals and Democrats.

The result of this disparity is that even as liberal states like Maryland and New York do away with the practice, conservative states like Texas and Utah are likely to stick with it. The fundamental reason conservatives tend to support the death penalty is that, as University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephanos Bibas recently told the Boston Globe, it reflects their belief in the importance of individual responsibility. For conservatives troubled by the rights revolution that transformed the U.S. criminal justice system in the 1960s and 1970s, “the death penalty became a symbol: Are we willing to hold people accountable for their actions?”

Perhaps in recognition of this widespread belief in the death penalty as a symbol of individual responsibility, at least some death penalty critics are choosing to emphasize its physical cruelty. For example, the political theorist Austin Sarat of Amherst College, author of Gruesome Spectacles, a history of botched executions, argues that the death penalty is inseparable from physical cruelty, as evidenced by the long history of mishaps and malfunctions that have turned seemingly humane methods of execution into hellish torments.

My own belief is that while virtually all methods of execution, including the most ingenious ones, will at some point fail to deliver a painless death, this isn’t in itself an argument against the death penalty. All human institutions suffer from limitations, and it’s hard to deny that contemporary executions are in important respects less cruel than those used in past eras.

A man and his son hold candles outside the prison before the execution of John Allen Muhammad at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, VirginiaMoreover, there is no reason to believe that progress has ceased. If you embrace the basic premise that the death penalty has important symbolic value, as a sign that some crimes are so heinous as to merit death, you’re not going to be convinced that botched executions are reason enough to abandon it.

The case for letting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed live

What should be done with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? If the Defense Department is to be believed, the chief planner of the 9/11 attacks on America is guilty of mass murder and crimes against humanity. Even if the evidence elicited by waterboarding him 183 times is void, his declaration in 2002 that “I was responsible for the 9/11 Operation from A to Z” should ensure conviction.

In addition to the 9/11 attacks that killed 2,973, he is credited with commissioning shoe-bomber Richard Reid to down a transatlantic jetliner laden with 300 passengers; planning the 1993 attempt to fell the Twin Towers, the Bali nightclub bombing that killed 200 and a bomb attack in Istanbul in 2003 that killed 60; as well as plots to assassinate Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton and to demolish the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. For those who would argue Mohammed is a war combatant rather than a dangerous psychotic, it should also be noted that he personally sawed off the head of the American reporter Daniel Pearl.

Mohammed and his co-conspirators face the death penalty, but it is by no means certain the prosecution will ask for it. There are a number of practical reasons Mohammed should instead live out his days buried in the vaults of a maximum security prison. He desperately wants to end his days of idle impotence and emerge as an inspirational figure in the Islamist war against the West. “This is what I wish, to be a martyr for a long time. I will, God willing, have this, by you,” he explained in 2008. He would be sooner forgotten alive than dead; just think of Charles Manson.

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