Friday, April 24, 2009

Torture and Capital Punishment

The recent release of torture memos has given new life to the debate on whether or not torture yields any useful information. The idea behind claiming that torture, or "enhanced interrogation techniques," yields more and/or better info from the torturee seems to be that we could justify violating our laws, international treaties, and our national values in order to engage in torture as long as said torture was yielding information that makes us all safer. The ends justify the means sorta thing. As I was driving home last night and listening to a former interrogator being interviewed on NPR, it reminded me of an argument concerning the death penalty made by Jeffrey Reiman.

In the debate over capital punishment, there are two main arguments used to defend the death penalty: retribution and deterrence. Those who think capital punishment is justified by retribution point out that the criminal has done something very wrong and thus deserves to pay the price. Justice demands that the criminal give his life to pay for the taking of someone else's life. An eye for an eye and all that. Those in the deterrent camp point to the alleged fact that having the death penalty serves to deter people who might murder from actually doing it. So in this argument, capital punishment is a sort of stick hanging over the heads of the population that will come down on them as soon as they commit murder (or some other capital offense), and since everyone will know this, people will be less likely to murder.

Reiman enters the debate on capital punishment well after these two positions have been established and fleshed out, and he takes a different tack than trying to disprove either position. Instead, he begins by granting both claims. He says, OK let's grant that the death penalty is just because of retribution, and if it does in fact prevent people from murdering each other, it is useful as a deterrent. These two ideas do seem to be intuitively appealing. But there still may be other reasons not to support the death penalty. For one thing, just because somebody deserves something, doesn't mean we have to give it to them. After all, if we were totally consistent retributionists, we'd still be gouging people's eyes out and chopping off their hands. But most of us cringe at that sort of thing in a civilized culture. And second, there's no real evidence that capital punishment is any more effective at deterring violent crime than long sentences. In fact, in many countries and states where there is no death penalty, the homicide rate is significantly lower than in those that do. So neither retribution nor the deterrent effect seem to be compelling reasons that we have to have the death penalty.

Are there reasons why we wouldn't want to practice capital punishment? According to Reiman, YES. For one thing, by abstaining from the death penalty we reject cruel treatment of people (just as when we abstain from gouging out eyes and chopping off hands), and reaffirm the value of human life. Not just unborn human life, but human life in general. (That last bit was my little snark - don't attribute that to Reiman, please.) In addition, we can avoid the social injustice that seems to be inherent in the uneven sentencing rates by simply abolishing the death penalty. Obviously the social injustice inherent in unequal conviction rates will still have to be dealt with. But at least we won't still be executing a hugely disproportionate rate of minority and economically disadvantaged convicts. And that would reflect our commitment to bringing about social justice.

But where Reiman's argument really ties into the torture issue is here. Being a civilized nation entails that we turn away from cruel and horrible ways of treating people. We like to believe that we've evolved past the enjoyment of public hangings, drawing-and-quartering criminals, and displaying the heads of beheaded criminals on public fenceposts. But to evolve past this, we need to also move past the necessity to have executioners among us. What does it do to an individual to be the one whose job it is to kill people? Can someone who has this job comfortably live among others in a civilized nation? And what must our self-conception be if we're OK with the fact that our criminal justice system necessitates the existence of executioners?

So this thought led me to think about all those operatives whose job it was day in and day out to chain people to ceilings, almost drown them, slap them repeatedly as they're chained and helpless, lock them in little boxes, etc. When this is all over and they come home, what effect will this experience have had on them? Will they still have a sense of empathy and compassion for their fellow humans? How will they tend to handle conflict and stress? Maybe we want to abstain from torture not just because of what it says about us, but because of what it does to us. And it's hard to imagine the kind of information torture would yield that could justify giving up our values, our respect for human life and dignity, and our ability to live with each other in a civilized way. When you look at it this way, torture is far too costly to ever be worth its potential benefits.


  1. Bailey4/25/2009

    Maybe we want to abstain from torture not just because of what it says about us, but because of what it does to us.Nice!

  2. You're so right about this.

  3. So true. Thank you !


  4. Nicole4/27/2009

    Is there an article or book where Reiman lays out this argument that you could link me to?


  5. Here 'tis!

  6. Hudders4/28/2009

    This is interesting, but I don't see how it's a feminist issue. In fact, many of the things you choose to write about don't seem like feminist issues to me.

  7. Anonymous11/22/2013

    I'm sure there's a wide overlap of interests between feminists and humanity in general. Two thumbs up for Rachel and this article.

  8. Anonymous4/14/2014

    So I've read two of your narcissisticly flamboyant diatribes and it occurs to me as I read your second to the last sentence that you are a secular hypocrite... ... "giving up our values, our respect for human life and dignity"... Torture is bad but the most innocent people are disposable since killing babies is about woman's health, right? How bout a dunce cap for the one(s) who imagine the silly rants on this tepid site...

    1. "narcissisticly flamboyant "

      I love this.