What is the issue?
Type of Issue (why?)
Reasons and Justification (identify the type of evidence and the strength of that evidence)?
Values, Value Conflicts?
Types of Evidence?
Let’s See if Barbarism Truly Deters
By: Richard Moran
Capital punishment: People are being executed each month and only those who read the inside pages of newspapers know it
A publicly supported TV station in San Francisco, KQED, has filed a federal civil lawsuit asking for permission to televise a California execution. The request should be granted, for it would spark a national debate on the death penalty and provide a much- needed test of the deterrent effects of capital punishment.
Since 1977, when executions were resumed in the United States, 142 men and one woman have been put to death. Much attention was given to the first few executions, but news reports of executions no longer occupy a prominent place in the national media. Press coverage has become so scant that even interested scholars find it difficult to catalog the steady procession of condemned prisoners into our nation’s death chambers.
A terrible paradox has resulted. As executions have become more numerous, they have become less visible. For executions to function as a deterrent, they must be visible:
Potential criminals must know about them. The more public the execution, the more effective the deterrent. By executing condemned criminals in private, and by barring television cameras, photo equipment and tape recorders from the death chamber, we have robbed the execution ceremony of any possible deterrent value. And, in doing so we have undercut the basis of its moral justification.
Research published in 1987 by sociologist Steven Stack (then at Auburn University, now at Wayne State) suggests that a highly publicized execution is associated with an average drop nationwide of 30 homicides in the month following the execution. This appears to be good news for those who support the death penalty. But between 1950 and 1980, only 16 of the 600 executions that occurred in America were given national media coverage. Even if we eliminate the 10 years in which no one was executed (1967-77) publicized executions still average less than one a year, hardly enough to produce a deterrent effect, especially when one considers that each year there are more than 20,000 homicides in the United States.
For policy makers interested in fashioning a death penalty that saves lives, the question becomes how to increase the publicity given to executions by the national media. The answer is as disturbing as it is obvious: Make executions public once again. At a minimum, let TV broadcast executions live. We view plane crashes and auto accidents, burn victims and mutilated bodies on the evening news. Even if these acts of violence are news, the viewing of them is generally devoid of social or moral purpose. Why protect our sensibilities when it comes to state-imposed executions, especially if there is a moral lesson to be learned and a legitimate social policy goal to be achieved?
There is a shocking and even barbaric quality to KQED’s proposal: I am aware of that. But right now we have the worst of both worlds. People are being executed each month and only those who read the middle pages of our newspapers are made aware of this fact. The televising of executions would allow us to test the deterrence argument for the first time this century-to find out if the imposition of the death penalty can save the lives of innocent people by deterring potential murderers.
Televised or public executions would have two additional positive effects. First, they would ignite a much-needed national debate on the death penalty.
Second, the new information on deterrence would help us evaluate the moral foundation of the death penalty. If Stack’s research is correct and publicized executions can save lives, then this fact alters the moral equation.
We have to balance the saving of lives against the taking of lives. A 30-1 ratio of lives saved to lives taken should prove enormously persuasive to all but the most hardened opponents of capital punishment. On the other hand, if the death penalty proved not to deter, then proponents would be forced to rely on the morally questionable motives of retribution and revenge.
If we are ever to resolve the disturbing paradox of people being executed and no one being deterred, then we ought to make executions public once again. Those who believe in the deterrent value of the death penalty should welcome the chance to demonstrate it. Its opponents should welcome the opportunity to expose the death penalty for the morally bankrupt social policy it has become.
At the very least, public execution would force all of us to face directly the consequences of our decision to kill those who have killed.
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