Execution Elocution

The Hyperion Chronicles
"There's something to be said for a little Vicious Beauty"

#506 Execution Elocution

We are all ready to be savage in some cause. The difference between a good man and a bad one is the choice of the cause.
William James
The enemy fought with savage fury, and met death with all its horrors, without shrinking or complaining: not one asked to be spared, but fought as long as they could stand or sit.
Davy Crockett

Last month the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law allowing execution for child rape. (In this particular case it was a man and his eight year old stepdaughter.) For various reasons (some dudgeon, a little circumforanity; mostly my hirudinean nature), I chose not to launch into full fulminations at that time. The Court, in its finite 5-4 wisdom, noted that America's "evolving standards of decency" made child rape not a crime deserving of the ultimate punishment.1

[Let us pause for a moment to acknowledge there are many people who philosophically disagree with the Death Penalty, both on ethical and efficacy grounds. Let us also freely admit that there are many proponents who are troubled by strong possibilities that other factors (such as race, wealth, intelligence) play a heavy role in Execution's execution. (I would have a foot in this camp.) These are important questions, and we can (and if you want: we will) discuss them another time. However, for the rest of this column, we are going forward with the understanding that the Death Penalty is in place in most of America, and it is not going away.]

So then, I ask you, why not execute child rapists? If we're going to make decisions on who gets put away, why can't these people be in line? When you break down the Court's Majority Opinion, it comes down to the argument that Capital Punishment is reserved only for the most heinous of crimes, which they define as murder.

( There is also Treason, which they can't do anything about. Trust me when I tell you that 5 members of that Court would have gotten rid of the Treason reason had they not been hamstrung by a little thing I like to call explicitly made licit by the Constitution.2 These same five members have been steadily narrowing Capital Punishment's scope for years in a thinly veiled quest to get rid of the practice. Hey: if that's the debate, let's as a nation have that debate. What frosts me is Justices using tortuous interpretations of the Constitution to come up with "rights" that are not there in the first place. Sigh. Again: another time.)

Back to the kiddie diddlers. Why can't we kill them? If the argument is only the worst crimes, wouldn't child rape qualify? Not to take a way the catastrophic effect of Murder, but one can make a compelling case that raping a child is worse. When you kill someone, you end that life permanently, often deprive the community of the person's value and worth, and in many cases scar friends and family forever. No one is arguing that ain't horrific.

However: when you rape a child, you not only (often; very fucking often) ruin that person's life, but you set in motion a chain of events that will ruin countless other lives to come. I have written about this extensively before3, so there is no need to belabor the point, but we all know (or should know) what happens: raped little boys often grow up and abuse/rape other little kids. Raped little girls often grow up and have the little kids, then unwittingly find the grown up abused boys and let the cycle begin again. And again. And again.

(This doesn't always happen. The lucky ones can just look forward to a lifetime of dysfunctional interpersonal relationships and sexual hangups. Some make it past that. No one is judging, and no one is making any accusations about you and the people you love. But you're dreaming if you think the above paragraph is not the norm. It is. Get used to it. And start getting mad.)

So I ask again: why can't we kill child rapists? Murder is (at least in most circumstances) not a pathology. A man might murder once for many reasons; it does not mean he will do it again. A "normal" man might be driven to murder in a horrific moment of weakness, shock, or rage. He will most likely never do it again. (Some will of course, but I'm just setting up my next point.)

It doesn't work that way with child rapists. Our best "understanding" is that pedophiles brains are different. (Often started from that abuse they suffered as kids.) Pedophiles--those who would rape children--almost always have a pathology. They have a compulsion, and for many, it is virtually impossible to stop.

You see where I'm going with this. I'm not claiming most murderers can be rehabilitated. What I am saying is that far fewer child rapists can. These are people who want to rape children. No, that's not quite right. Whether they want to or not, these are people who need to rape children. More important, these are people who will rape children given the chance (escape, parole, Vermont law). Most important of all: these are people who have raped children.

I have been against Megan's Law from the start, because I find the logic ridiculous. It is punishing people twice, by ruining their lives on the outside. Yet I understand the motivation; faced with possible predators in your neighborhood, you use any means you can to protect your children.

The answer, though, is not fliers and websites and signs. The answer is to quit letting these people out. The answer is to step up as a society and acknowledge there is a Social Compact that everyone must follow if they want to live here. There isn't that much to it, but if you violate it egregiously, you forfeit your right to live.

Look: we all can imagine times when we might kill. To protect our families. Fear. Jealousy. Revenge. I am not saying these are valid reasons by any means, but there are times when, if sitting in a jury, even if you could not excuse the behavior, you'd at least understand. However, no one you know, no one I know, no one any one knows could ever see themselves sitting there in a court room thinking, "Yeah, I can see how he misunderstood the four-year old. The way she dressed. She was asking for it."

It sounds almost silly, huh? You can't come up with a scenario where you could ever understand. Ever. Surely that could be our threshold. In fact, I would be willing to make a trade: let the murderers rot in jail in exchange for wiping the child rapists out.

If you find yourself nodding your head, thinking, "If that were the only way to swing it, I'd go for it," then you realize I'm right. If we are to have a Death Penalty at all, let's put Child Rapists at the front of the line.

And so we don't end on such a downer......(WARNING: MAJOR SHIFT IN TONE)

As long as we're killing people, how about the fine folks who make computer viruses? I do not even understand the point of this crime. Viruses are set to hit random people, and the vast majority of the time the creator gets no credit. (To get "credit" means you've been caught, which no virus maker wants.)

I don't condone robbery, but at least I "get" it.

Joe wants beer
Joe has no money
Joe stuffs beer cans down his pants and walks out of the store
Joe now has beer

In the above "scenario," I'm not saying Joe is right. I'm not saying anything about Joe (other than: if he had anything down his pants to begin with, he couldn't fit all the beer). I am saying that we can follow the logic, even if silly.

What's the logic about a computer virus?

If I seem bitter, it's because I am. I'm writing this column not on my computer, and I may not get to use my computer for some time. Why? Because someone I have never met and have never wronged (unless, of course, I meet him) unleashed into the world a "trojan" virus, which found its way to my family's computer, only to let other viruses through the door. This has cost everyone their time, could potentially cost a lot of money, threatens hard work and all that jazz. I've been through it before; likely you have too.

(This isn't even to mention: is there anything in today's society that causes more rage than technology impotence? All the people I'm likely to meet in the next few days are likely to have their days worsened having to deal with me, and then they'll ruin other people's days, and so on.4)

I see no value to society for computer virus people. Off with their heads, I say! Then there's the Identity Theft Monsters. Targeting someone, ruining their life. Do we need them? I say No! And I'm just getting started. You got people who almost cause crashes while talking on their cell phones, and people who talk in the Theater and whoever invented Rick-Rolling. Sigh. I suppose it's a slippery slope.5

But all kidding aside, I meant what I wrote up above. Let those people be first in line. I'll even do it myself if everyone is squeamish.

But somehow I suspect there will be a line there, too.

Bloodthirsty as always but in a plenipotentiary6 way,

July 23, 2008

1Click to read the pdf of the the case and the majority/minority opinions.
2 The last sentence in Article III of the Constitution, if you're interested.
3 See my columns #300 (The Wall) and #352 (Both Barrels)
4 I kid you not: ten seconds after I wrote about technology screw-ups, the power went out, killing the computer. As the unit I'm on has no Word, I am writing on Google Documents, and since this is an emotional rant, I wrote it all at once without taking time to even save it. I calmly thought to myself as I booted back up: "if my column is gone, I am going to murder someone." Thankfully it's still here. I love youFirefox and Google Dox.
5 Pretty soon it will be people who put fresh mint in Graitch.
6 I used a bunch of big words at the beginning and again at the end. That was an inside joke on myself. I called the column (after some argument) "Execution Elocution," knowing that in my angry tired state I was anything but eloquent. The big words were an attempt to make me look better, while mocking myself by acknowledging that they do not.


rennratt said...

As always, you have given me a lot to think about.

I tend to hang on the fence regarding capital punishment; the "thou shalt not kill" rule hits me every time.

But as a Mum? Dude. No question.

Lady Jane Scarlett said...

Insightful Hyperion. I agree with you entirely. However, one question that we can perhaps discuss at a later time is if murdering child rapists would have an effect on the overall rate. Given that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent for the crimes it IS applicable for, I don't think that applying the death penalty in these cases would really stop child rapists.

Hyperion said...

rennratt - For what it's worth, the commandment is "Thall shall not murder," the understanding being that murdering was taking innocent life. (How they jived that with their holy wars I'm unsure, but there you go.)

LJS - I got all sorts of problems with Capital Punishment, but unlike most people, my solution is to exercise it more, not less. Do I wish we lived in a world where it was uneccessary? Yes. Do we live in that world? No. We're going to get into this more in depth another time, but briefly: all of the "statistics" about deterrence, and they are muddy on both sides, are based on the system we have now, which is not swiftly applied justice. I argue that if there was a one year period (for appeals and any mitigation), and we we could ensure we only execute the guilty, and then we did just that, crime would go down.

Like I said, we'll get into it more later, and just to be clear: my moral argument isn't about deterrence as much as the Social Compact, but hey: you said applying the Death Penalty wouldn't stop child rapists: it'd stop the ones we axed, ne?

Anonymous said...

I was just about to say thou shall not murder. You beat me to it.

I was against the death penalty due to the thou shall not kill thing. That was until I found out that the literal translation was thou shall not murder. The Bible also says... well if you're in to sermons listen to this one -


Lady Jane Scarlett said...

The problem with using the Bible (or any literary, or philosophical tome) is that it can always be used against itself. (let me be a devil's advocate here)

For example:
I do believe the Bible also said "judge not, lest ye be judged". In that respect, is it our hubris to judge guilt?

Hyperion said...

[This might get tricky, but I'll go my best....]

You can use any document that's long enough to argue against itself. The US Constitution, for example, explicitly allows for slavery. You'd have to read later to see they repealed that part.

I wasn't using the Bible, merely pointing out that reading the Commandment as an all-encompassing "kill" instead of "murder" was incorrect.

However, saying "doesn't the Bible also say..." is reductive in the extreme. Again, to be clear, I don't use the Bible to make any of my moral arguments. I have nothing against it, but I can make any case I'm going to based on logic.

That said, pulling one part out of the Bible to refute another part is as non-sensical as using one portion of testimony from a plaintiff to rebut a defense witness, then claiming that since they all come from the same trial, the testimony contradicts itself.

Yes, there are many people who feel the Bible is a cohesive document, inspired by God and not contradictory, but even those people (if they know what they are talking about), will readily say that the hundreds of different characters with speaking parts are often talking about different things. I'm not trying to be a Biblical apologist, as the same would hold true for anyone at any time. What you shout to a boxer on TV ("Finish him!"), does not mean you would always hold for violence, etc.

Your case(Matthew, Chapter 7) is a particularly poignant example. Jesus is speaking about/to the Pharisees, who made hypocrisy a high art form. They would revel in whatever minuscule points of the law they could, ignoring the more fundamental precepts of kindness/etc. Also, Jesus was saying that it is not people's place to decide who is blessed by God and who is going to Heaven; they should worry about themselves. A lesson for us all.

But in no way was Jesus speaking about changing the criminal code. He was talking about attitudes and hearts. Any law would be the restrictive Jewish law. And, to be clear, he was judging. (Maybe he's God, but still.) If you read Matthew Chapter 5, it's full of things we're not supposed to do.

I think Matthew 7:1 is genius in its own way: when we judge others we often reveal hypocrisy in ourselves. However, that deals with the heart and spirit. We have laws, and we have punishment when those laws are broken. That is the foundation of society.

I am not judging child rapists, per se. I imagine many of them have had awful lives to get to where they got, lives I wouldn't wish on anyone.

But I can't solve every problem at once. I yearn to change the homes around, so that these molesters are not created. I choose to do that by making sure the homes are safe. One way would be to permanently remove people who violate this most basic tenet of our Social Compact. At the very least, they won't be raping anyone again. (

It's not judgment of a person's heart. It is merely following through on punishment for their actions.

I take comfort in the virtual certainty that both Moses (10 Commandments) and Christ himself would be right there with me.

Aviendha said...

My qualm with applying the death penalty in any case is that it's applied in a discriminatory way, so I tend to be in the same camp that you are. I'm not ideologically opposed to the death penalty, simply its application.
In the child rape case, I am again ideologically unopposed to the use of the death penalty. Child rape is a fast-growing problem in the US, one that seems to have no ready solution. It certainly devastates its victims, as well as the family members, and is subject to a hugely high recidivism rate. However, I think that as in murder cases, it will be disproportionately applied to non-whites. There is where I pause...because while I believe that we should allow this type of execution, it should be applied fairly, taking into account criminal history, severity of the crime, etc. without regard to skin color.
To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, why can't we all just intermarry and become a shade of gray so we can hate each other for who we really are, and not the color of our skin?

Dragon said...

I agree with you on this one. If you are going to practice executions as a form of punishment, Child Rapists should be near the top of any list. The stealing of a child's innocence in such a violent/degrading way is one of the worst forms of evil.

Well written, Hyperion.

Anonymous said...

Hype, you make two excellent points. First, in regard to the severity of the crime of child rape - some things can be worse than death.

Second, almost no one can understand the motivation behind child rape, whereas most people can understand the motivation behind many murderous "crimes of passion". That doesn't make the murderers right, but it demonstrates that we can at least understand that there are some values a person can have that he might see as more valuable than a life. Hardly anyone understands the values being weighed by a child rapist, and that must be an indication as to the worth (or lack thereof) of those values in society.

LJS - We should be careful in making blanket statements about deterrence. The statistical evidence is, as Hype stated, muddy. Personally, I think this is mainly due to the fact that it is nearly impossible to count people who were actually deterred from committing a crime because of the death penalty. If we somehow could do this, I believe it would overwhelmingly push it in favor.

Furthermore, I think it is common sense that punishment in general deters people. If it didn't, why would we have many of our laws in the first place? If you weren't thrown in jail for stealing cars or committing fraud then what motivation do you have to not do such things, other than your own conscience? Even children, who don't have a fully formed conscience, are deterred by the threat of a spanking or being sent to their rooms. You'd be hard pressed to convince me that if we had capital punishment for DUI, for example, we would not have less incidence of it.

Aviendha - I question the idea that a punishment isn't applied evenly to everyone across the board is an indication of the unfairness of the punishment itself; or rather, if it is more an indication of already existing unfairness of the justice system, or the people executing that system. And then if we choose to throw out laws or punishments based on imperfections of people within the system, doesn't that pretty much eliminate the justice system as we know it?

Lady Jane Scarlett said...

Hypey: Your idea of a Social Compact (are you cribbing Rousseau's social contract here?) is very good. You have a clear moral argument for the establishment of a social compact.

The idea of what makes a person bound to the SC is another story entirely, and perhaps based on your outlook on humanity. Is it fear of punishment or love of mankind that binds one to societal norms?

I think that deterrence is germane to a Social Compact. Reality shows us that not everyone is motivated to live by a SC for altruistic reasons. But, for the most part, people still do. Why? Because they know there will be consequences.

Bear: If the threat of punishment was so strong, then there'd be no crime. Like gravity, it is the weak force among many others.
Applying the death penalty to a population of criminals that a) doesn't care and b) has no moral compass is not a deterrent to stopping them or others like them. Nor is it a deterrent to the rest of us (who wouldn't do those sorts of things anyway because of our morals and ethics).

Anonymous said...

Exodus may have 'thou shalt not kill', but the very next book in the bible, Leveticus, is chock-full of different offenses against God (including murder), many of which result in stoning to death (fate far more cruel and unusual than lethal enjection). Old Testament seems a bit divided on the topic. New Testament is not: turn the other cheek, forgive your brother his trespasses against you. FYI, JC spared the life of a woman caught in the act of adultery (the famous 'let you who is without sin cast the first stone). So it would seem JC would in fact approve of the removal of capital crimes, at least those prosecuted by those guilty of other capital crimes.

As a father of two, the notion of anyone messing with my boys fills me with Hulk-like levels of anxiety and smashiness. That, however, doesn't bode well for the bassis of law and justice. Personally, I'd think more of a supreme court who mandated federal, state, county, and municipal funding for recovery and rehabilitation programs for the victims of rape (child or otherwise) than one mandating the destruction of its perpetrators.

I believe that making rape-related crimes the subject of nation-wide three-strikes legislation (any three felonies, and the third conviction carries a life sentence without chance of parole) would be as effective a reductive factor in rape cases as captial punishment. Granted, we'd have to pay for their care an upkeep for the rest of their lives, but its would arguably be cheaper than keeping them on death row for a decade (death-row inmates cost substantially more to maintain than regular inmates, and generally stay on the row for ten or more years).

Not to mention the current nation-states who use capital punishment aren't the best of legal company: China, most of the middle east, Cuba, India, an several garden spots in Northern Africa.

Sorry to fly in the face of popular opinion, but I'm unconvinced killing rapists (child or otherwise) is any sort of solution to the problem. If we spent as much time helping the victims as we do cursing the offenders, that might be a better way.


Anonymous said...

LJS: I honestly am a little confused at your stance. In one paragraph you state the that deterrence is a key component of mainting a social contract because not everyone is bound by moral codes, and that people are deterred because they have to deal with the consequences. Isn't that pretty much saying we need to punish people for committing crimes in order to deter others from doing so? But in the next paragraph you question the value of punishment as deterrence.

I do not believe punishment can prevent all crime. There will always be some people who value some criminal act as worth the risk, or even the guarantee, of punishment. There are indeed many factors at play, but I *do* think that punishments can be strong enough to prevent a significant amount of crime. The "moral compass"--or lack of one--is irrelevant because if the criminal is afraid to lose his life, and if losing his life is a possible consequence, then he will be less likely to take action, regardless of his morals. If he "doesn't care" about losing his life (if that is what you meant), well, one could argue that really makes that person much more dangerous to society. In any case, I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of murderers, rapists, and other criminals care very much about their own lives. Or at least a very significant amount of them do.

Ajax: Your desire to help the victims of these crimes is noble, but it is a solution to a different problem, the problem of making the best of a bad situation. Helping the victims will do very little to , if anything, prevent that situation from happening in the first place, or preventing other situations like it from happening in the future.

It is not the Supreme Court's job to create laws. Thus, the only way the court should be "mandating" anything is for issuing judgements on laws that have already been created.

As to the economic costs of the death penalty, it is certainly not clear that it costs more with it in place than without it. On the contrary, the fact that it can be used as a bargaining chip in many ways to lower costs is strong argument the other way (e.g. "admit you're guilty and we won't pursue the death penalty").

Hyperion said...

TO EVERYONE WHO HAS COMMENTED THUS FAR - I am impressed and even humbled at the level of discourse in a lowly old Comments section. As I look at it, it becomes obvious to me that I cannot speak of who should be put to death without first making my case for why the practice exist in the first place. I was bouncing off the Supreme Court ruling, but in effect, I put the cart before the horse.

At the beginning of my column I gave the caveat that many people don't like the Death Penalty, either philosophically or in its application, but we were going to ignore that. You can't do everything in one column. That said, we shouldn't ignore these things.

I now realize I must do a full fledged column (maybe more than one) on Capital Punishment. This will come soon. If you're interested in helping out with this, email me.

(BTW, I wrote a four part series on Capital Punishment back in 2001. The first three are #39, #40 and #45. I never finished the fourth, which was my case for Capital Punishment, including my idea of the Social Compact. I guess it's time to find my old green notebook and dust off my notes. I'll see you all soon with fresh arguments and debate.)