Justice and capital punishment–then and now.

Justice, even if slow, is sure.
~ Solon (c.638 BCE – c. 558 BCE) 

Whatever one may think about capital punishment, yesterday’s events were extraordinary. Two men were put to death by governmental bodies in America–one, in Texas, was a white man convicted of killing a black man in a hate crime, and the other, in Georgia, was a black man convicted of killing a white off-duty police officer. In the first, the family of the victim, James Byrd, went on the record saying that they were against the death penalty in the case and his eldest daughter said,”I want the world to know that I have forgiven him and I don’t hate him.” In the second case, the family of the victim, Mark MacPhail, was in favor of the execution and several were on hand to witness it.

In the twittersphere, on cable news, and on blogs, people were debating the merits of capital punishment. Is it just? Is it moral? Can we ever know beyond a reasonable doubt if someone is guilty and what does “reasonable doubt” mean? Can you be for small government and yet use that same government to kill a man? Can you be pro-choice and anti-death penalty–or vice versa? Can we, as US citizens, call ourselves modern and civilized if we stand with nations like North Korea, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen when it comes to executing our own.

According to Wikipedia:

  • 2010 – The following 23 countries carried out executions in 2010: Bahrain (1), Bangladesh (9+), Belarus (2), Botswana (1), China (2000+), Egypt (4), Equatorial Guinea (4), Iran (252+), Iraq (1+), Japan (2), Libya (18+), Malaysia (1+), North Korea (60+), Palestinian Authority (5), Saudi Arabia (27+), Singapore (1+), Somalia (8+), Sudan (6+), Syria (17+), Taiwan (4), USA (46+), Vietnam (1+), Yemen (53+).[2]
  • 2011 – As of 5 May 2011 executions have been reported in the following 9 countries during 2011: Bangladesh, China, Iran, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, UAE, USA.

So what is it about Americans and capital punishment? Why does it remain so overwhelmingly popularI don’t know. The concept of an eye for an eye seems so archaic to me. But I wonder if there’s something deeper going on. Something beyond simple blood payment or revenge. I wonder if part of the reason Americans favor the death penalty is because they believe it can never happen to them or to anyone they know. It always happens to “the other”.  After all, we’re all law-abiding citizens. Only murderers (and their families) will pay the ultimate price for their crimes, so it doesn’t have anything to do with me or anyone I know. America is a nation of laws and, as Javert might say, the law is the law.

But we know that the law is a product of humans and humans are infallible. Have innocent people been put to death in America? Yes. Did it happen last night in the Troy Davis case? I don’t know. But the risk that it could have and the fact that it has happened before makes capital punishment–for me–an untenable practice in a modern society.

In Ancient Greece, as in my other ancient societies, capital punishment was carried out for all sorts of crimes. In fact, until Solon reformed Draco’s laws (circa 650 BCE, which were very harsh, hence draconian), in Athens minor crimes such as theft and even adultery were considered capital offences (although it appears that the punishment was seldom carried out). In terms of adultery, dealing harshly with the man who came into your home and had sex with your wife was permitted because it was essential for men, who owned/controlled all a family’s wealth and property, to know that their heirs were indeed their own. It is interesting to note that some sources refer to odd punishments such as the insertion of a radish into the anus of the man who committed adultery and a prohibition against wearing jewelry or entering into any temples or holy places by women.

Radishes aside, after Solon’s reforms, homicide was the only crime for which an Athenian could be put to death by the state. Today, Greece is among the community of nations that have abolished capital punishment. When will it be America’s turn to join that community?

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