Friday, June 1, 2012

The Peculiar Institution

Probably the most interesting section from the reading this week to me came from the notion that capital punishment serves as a ritual for Americans to express their own outrage at heinous crimes.  Obviously part of this observation seems common sense, especially when you consider the sensationalism surrounding death penalty cases and the media’s obsession with them, but really the roots of the observation require more detailed explanation.  For example, the fact that the death penalty is carried out in a highly clinical environment, far from the watchful eye of the media and public (some of whom have been tracking the case for years), in the most humane way possible, undermines the supposed outcome of the death penalty.  If the death penalty is supposed to serve as a sort of societal catharsis and we remove its most visible features, can it ever satisfy those retributive aims?  I don’t think so.

I think this question gets at the heart of our educational objectives as civics and history teachers.  For those of us who want the death penalty, we have to ask ourselves how bringing back the death penalty as a ‘spectacle’ to satisfy families and the public’s desire for retribution would conflict with the 8th Amendment, if such a conflict exists.  This is a civics issue – the rights of the convicted criminal (a minority in this instance) and the rights of the public (the majority.)  And as history teachers, we could ask ourselves if it is truly desirable to ‘regress’ back to the public execution system as a warning to those who would break our laws – a slippery slope, perhaps, to political executions.

To respond to one of our own questions, how does geography (cultural as well as physical) play a role in the ‘shaping’ of the death penalty?  I submit that, in Southern states, as a result of the clannish ‘blood feud’ style of justice/vengeance that characterized rural and mountain cultures (can you tell I just watched the Hatfields and McCoys miniseries?) the death penalty has survived and flourished.  In Northern states, where urbanization is far more pervasive and cities have had to deal with the very real problems of crowding and violence, people have become more desensitized to the idea of seeing violence in the community and may be less likely to want to see violence returned upon the criminals (a “when does it end” kind of mentality).  This is probably a gross oversimplification of the topic, but it may explain at least some small part of the disparities we see between the North and South on the issue of the death penalty.


  1. First of all: Laser Mudkip background = very nice, sir.

    Secondly, (and obviously more on-topic), I agree that the notion that the death penalty expresses the public's general outrage at heinous crimes is a fascinating one. Even though he claims that is has some of the same satisfaction and purpose that lynching served, I agree with you that it's sometimes hard to see it that way considering how secret the actual carrying-out of the act is. While I understand the author's point about that, I don't know if I totally buy for the precise reasons that you mentioned. Though for some, the death penalty may be a sense of "WOOOO THAT $%&$#@ IS DEAD!" I honestly think those people are few and far between. Yeah, a lot of people got ridiculous about the Casey Anthony case, but I certainly know more people, (myself included), that became entirely apathetic and really-don't-care-anymore about it after the initial, "Holy crap, for real?" reaction wore off. I certainly was over it over a year later when she was finally convicted. So yeah, maybe for some the death penalty is a kind of catharsis, but I feel that for most, it's a shrug of the shoulders.

  2. Well stated, Shawn. If we want to use it for cathartic purposes, we have to make it more of a public spectacle. If we want to use it for retribution, we might have to make the means of death fit more closely with what the victim experienced. That leads down a slippery slope straight to The Hunger Games or beheadings in the public square...