Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Death Penalty As Religious Sacrifice

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has a magnificent review of Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition by David Garland in the latest NYRB. Among its many virtues is an idea that author Garland offers in evidence for the US on-going practice of capital punishment, viz., that ours is a culture fascinated with death.
[A]n important reason Americans retain capital punishment is their fascination with death. While neither the glamour nor the gore that used to attend public executions remains today, he observes, capital cases still generate extensive commentary about victims’ deaths and potential deaths of defendants. Great works of literature, like best-selling paperbacks, attract readers by discussing killings and revenge. Garland suggests that the popularity of the mystery story is part of the culture that keeps capital punishment alive.
Stevens doesn't explore this facet of Garland's work too much, focusing far more on the nuances of Supreme Court jurisprudence (which makes sense). All the same, considering that Garland is an emigre from Scotland, this particular observation seems to be at odds with the usual, radical, critique of much of American culture, that it is rooted in a denial of the reality of death.

Yet, in some ways, perhaps the phenomenon Garland writes about, and the focus of radical critique are two sides of the same coin. We fetishize death, obsess about it, in a vicarious way through fiction and through the detailed dissection of murder and the consequences to the perpetrator as a way of making clear and public our fear of death. We are fascinated with it because we fear it. We fear its finality. We fear the violence it does to our bodies, the lives of those left behind. Most of all we fear the meaninglessness that death brings to all our valiant efforts at living. We spend decades to make something of ourselves, to bring to the passage of time something substantive, and the reality of death, of our individual deaths, robs it all of purpose.

So, perhaps this cultural fascination is really a kind of expiation. The murderer, who brings the reality of death crashing home in a violent, intrusive way, becomes the sacrifice, his (or her) death nullifying the death he (or she) brought about. In a sense, capital punishment serves a quasi-religious function in our civil religion, where the perpetrator's death becomes necessary to stave off the community-wide fear of death the murder has dredged to the surface.

Understood in this way, its on-going practice makes sense. As a society, we are loathe to consider any limits to our actions, and there is nothing more limiting than death. A murderer violates all our social and cultural taboos; the death of such a one becomes almost necessary to set the cultural karmic scales back in balance.

Virtual Tin Cup

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