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May 25, 2013

I can't make up my mind on the death penalty


Not that there’s any shame in feeling vengeance. Some death penalty opponents cite religious concepts such as heaven and hell, arguing that God will eventually settle the score. But I’m not religious, and part of me would prefer to unleash temporal wrath on those who deserve it, just in case.

In Europe, where many countries have banned the death penalty, American attitudes toward capital punishment are sometimes considered barbaric and backward. But French philosopher Michel Foucault cautioned those who might mistakenly assume this drift away from capital punishment is from a groundswell of humanitarian concern among European nations. Rather, Foucault argued, changes in the social structure have forced those in power to rely on more subtle forms of coercion.

“Together with war, (capital punishment) was for a long time the other form of the right of the sword; it constituted the reply of the sovereign to those who attacked his will, his law, or his person,” Foucault wrote in 1978. “Those who died on the scaffold became fewer and fewer, in contrast to those who died in wars.”

I have to confess: I considered such reasons while mulling the potential execution of Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old Boston bombing suspect captured alive after his 26-year-old brother Tamerlan, the plot’s alleged mastermind, was killed by police. The younger Tsarnaev to me seems weak and malleable; perhaps the CIA can break him down, then mold him into a pro-U.S. mouthpiece while he serves a life sentence behind bars.

There are two compelling arguments against capital punishment. The first is that our justice system favors those who can afford the best lawyers, and the second is the possibility of executing an innocent person.

But both of those seem like indictments of our judicial system’s flaws, not of the concept of giving the state the power to kill. In a sense, anyone who believes police should carry sidearms is in favor of capital punishment under the right circumstances. If Dzhokar Tsarnaev were instead killed by police in an exchange of gunfire, few would complain about the state having ended a man’s life.

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