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Kill the Killers?

In response to:

License to Kill from the June 28, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

Graham Hughes’s review of a book arguing for rather than against capital punishment (NYR, June 28) suffers, alas, from the usual over-refined, abstract, and squeamish stances of the well-educated. The arguments for capital punishment—not the ones which, predictably, Professor Hughes stands in a neat line, waiting for his withering dismissal—are in fact remarkably logical, singularly tough-minded, and founded I would say rather in ethology and economies than in philosophy, theology, and even law.

(1) Incarceration does not produce reform. This is I take it pretty well accepted, even in the softest of hearts; it is I think undeniably true when crimes other than the white-collar variety are at issue, and painfully true when crimes of violence are involved. (Professor Hughes’s claim that “It is in fact rare for released murderers to commit another murder” is much more open to question than he seems to think: when murder is incidental to another crime, robbery, rape, kidnapping, and so on, I wonder if his statistics are anything like as impressive?) We start, then, with the basic assumption that prison does not help, it only imprisons, and the clear corollary that no matter how desirable it may seem to be, reform does not take place in prisons, and the equally clear corollary that people bent sufficiently out of shape are not going to be put back together by any means known to us.

(2) Vicious murderers—the people we are presumably talking about, rather than the merely domestic, merely intoxicated, who murder others close to them and indeed murder, usually, only once—cause immense pain and damage. They are in fact quite likely to murder again, since as I have suggested their killing is ordinarily associated with other violent crimes, and the evidence is plain that they cannot be reformed. It is therefore necessary, as a social matter, to keep them out of ordinary social currents.

(3) Prison is an inherently unsatisfactory solution to long-term incarceration—unsatisfactory, that is, because it is brutalizing on all sides, it is expensive, and in psychological terms it does little to ease survivors’ pain and suffering—and I think it long overdue that we focus more on the victim, and the victims’ relatives and associates, than on the criminal. Why do we need to swell our prison population, requiring vast numbers of men and women to serve as jailers, and requiring vast sums of scarce public monies to be expended, when our social goal—elimination from society of the violent killer—can be expeditiously and economically accomplished by execution? Is lifetime incarceration in brutal surroundings inherently moral? And what, really, does morality have to do with it in any case? Society, and the individual members of society, surely have a right to protect themselves from the dangerous among us, and in whatever ways society as a whole thinks best.

Professor Hughes, finally, performs—and performs very well—at the intellectual charade known to all lawyers (and I am one) as “the parade of the horribles.” “Look what will happen if…” he tells us. “Look what has happened, here, and here, and there.” But these are I’m afraid procedural matters, and not at all relevant to the main point. Surely we are sometimes unfair, unjust, undemocratic, racist. In a word, and a blunt one, so what? Execution is not murder—but murder is, and we need to be realistic and fair to ourselves in deciding how to deal with it. Capital punishment is a societal imperative, no matter what Kant or Professor Hughes or your old philosophy teacher may say.

Burton Raffel

Denver, Colorado

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