By David Kaczynski
In the world we live in, everything is connected to everything else, making it quite difficult to establish precise chains of causality, much less enabling us to predict future trends with accuracy. In areas of human behavior and social causation, we often can’t sufficiently narrow the field of relevant data to generalize about the factors that are likely to have the greatest influence.
Does the death penalty deter homicide? This question has been studied to death (pardon the pun) by researchers and statisticians for more than thirty-five years, with results ranging all over the map.
Now, the prestigious National Research Council – after surveying this vast body of research on deterrence and the death penalty – has found no credible research to indicate that the death penalty deters homicide, nor any credible research to indicate that it does not deter homicide when compared with other available punishments. The Council report was also dismissive of some studies that found that the death penalty might increase the rate of homicide through its “brutalization” effect.
The bottom line of the Council’s report was that we simply don’t know enough about the death penalty’s impacts on human behavior to consider them when evaluating the death penalty as a public policy.
Despite the report’s even-handed language, its conclusion is fairly devastating to the pro-death penalty side. Why invest billions of dollars in a public program that has no demonstrated efficacy? The question is particularly embarrassing to politically conservative supporters of the death penalty who make a habit of criticizing the inefficiency and wastefulness of government programs.
The study also leaves pro-death penalty politicians without a leg to stand on. During a presidential debate in 2000, Texas’ reigning executioner-in-chief, George W. Bush (I believe Rick Perry has since surpassed his record for having signed more death warrants than any governor in history) piously said that the death penalty “should never be about vengeance” but only about saving lives.
“I believe the death penalty is a deterrent!” announced Bush, to which the wonkish Al Gore meekly agreed.
I’m waiting for a mainline presidential candidate to come clean: “I know the death penalty is probably not a deterrent but I do believe in vengeance and I don’t care how much it costs!” (My only fear is that we’ll hear a candidate saying something like this before we’ll hear one speaking the truth that “the death penalty is a failed program that costs too much and risks too much….and besides, do you really want your government playing God with citizen’s lives?”
Here in New York, there hasn’t been a strong push to reinstate the death penalty since the later part of the last decade, but the argument has always been that we need a limited death penalty for “cop-killers” in order to provide a margin of safety for those who protect us. Again, the kernel of the argument is deterrence – that criminals (or anyone else bent on violence) will hesitate to shoot or stab a police officer if they know that doing so could get them a death sentence.
Unfortunately, 2011 was a particularly bad year for police murders. A recent New York Times article reported that more than 70 law enforcement officers were murdered nationwide, a significant spike compared with past years. The article quoted a bevy of experts who were asked to speculate on the reasons for this increase in violence against law enforcement personnel. Interestingly, none of the experts cited the presence, absence, or frequency of use of the death penalty as a factor that might affect the safety of police officers.
I decided to do some research and crunch some numbers, and here is what I found (feel free to draw your own conclusions):
In 2011, the sixteen abolitionist states (CT joined this list in 2012) plus the District of Columbia accounted for more than 26% of the US population but only 18% of the police officers murdered.
By contrast, three states (TX, FL, and VA) which apply the death penalty frequently – having carried out more than half of all US executions since 1976 – accounted for about 16.5% of the US population but for nearly 20% of police murders in 2011.
Police murders aside, it has long been recognized that states without the death penalty have, on average, significantly lower murder rates than states with the death penalty. A just released study by the Institute for Economics and Peace, a business think tank, drives home this correlation. Of the 10 most dangerous states identified in the Institute’s survey, all 10 have the death penalty; whereas among the 10 states considered safest, 7 of those states – including the two safest – don’t have the death penalty!
It really does beg the question: What is the connection, if any, between violence and the death penalty?
Let me put this as succinctly as I can (and please don’t report me to the National Research Council): The same socio-cultural-political factors that incline a state or region toward having the death penalty and toward using it frequently (e.g. black and white thinking; “us vs. them”; stereotyping of community members by police and of police by community members) are also constitutive of violence generally, forming the basis of a “justification” required by more or less normal human beings to relax the inhibition against behaving violently.
In other words, behind most acts of violence there lies a narrative of justified vengeance. Our religious traditions understand this and have spoken to the problem again and again. “Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.” (Leviticus) “Love your enemies.” (Jesus) The Buddha preached against entertaining vengeful thoughts let alone taking vengeful actions. Even the atheist philosopher Nietzsche aspired, somewhat grandiosely, to “free mankind from the spirit of revenge.”
I don’t mean to suggest that because it is not easy to validate spiritual truths by empirical means that all deep truths are beyond scientific validation. For instance, in the past month yet another longitudinal study has emerged to demonstrate that exposure to violence, especially in early childhood, can significantly shorten one’s life span. The study found that even our genes are adversely affected by the stress of violence.
I’d like to propose a few simple but possibly productive follow-up questions for researchers to frame up for study:
1. What are the long-term effects on a child whose parent has been executed? (Why has no one asked this question?)
2. Is violence contagious? (If so, how can we immunize ourselves?)
3. Is kindness contagious? (Since everything is connected to everything else, we may never fully appreciate the power of kindness until we commit ourselves to practicing it as a way of being!)