The topic of the death penalty is both dark and controversial. While I’m personally against it and I know many others who agree with me, I’ve also seen a few people argue in its favour.
We’ll discuss the morality behind the death penalty later. But first, I want to give some background information.
The Death Penalty vs Capital Punishment
These terms are usually used interchangeably. When somebody receives the death penalty, they’ve only been convicted of the crime. Capital punishment refers to execution. Everyone receiving capital punishment also has the death penalty, but not vice versa.
Canada’s history with the death penalty
According to an interview with Ross Higgins of the Quebec Gay Archives, the death penalty was first used in Canada in the 18th century. The crime was sodomy (which meant his crime was being gay). The man in question was a military drummer who’s remained unnamed by history. He was spared by the Bishop of Quebec with an ultimatum, “die or become Quebec’s executioner.”
I can’t even imagine what it would have been like living in his shoes. Because he didn’t want to die, he was forced to kill others like himself alongside murderers and rapists. We can only be thankful that our society has evolved since then.
Fast forward to December 11, 1962. When Canada’s final public executions happened at this point, the government passed Bill C-186, which made it so that there had to be a five-year moratorium on the death penalty.
Then, in 1976, the federal government posed a question to the public “Should the death penalty be abolished?” Canadians voted yes, resulting in the abolition of the death penalty later that year. Even so, it wasn’t until 1999 that the death penalty was lifted for military offences.
But does it work?
No. It doesn’t work.
Even from a statistical standpoint, the USA (which still has the death penalty in most states) has an overall reoffending rate of 41%. Norway, the country with the lowest reoffending rate, has done away with the traditional prison system. They opt for a rehabilitation system instead and haven’t had the death penalty since 1979. They sit at a reoffending rate of 20%. That’s less than half as many as the USA. This shows that threatening your citizens with death if they break specific, arbitrarily determined, rules doesn’t deter them. Norway also provides basic needs to its populace, such as food, shelter and healthcare. This leads me to believe that the reoffending rate in America has deeper roots than just crime. Convicts have a roof over their heads and three meals a day, but they lack basic human rights. I could see the appeal of committing a crime so that you have a place to sleep for the night, especially in the middle of winter, when it becomes a life-or-death situation.
Death also doesn’t stay a deterrent when somebody has nothing left to lose. Many school shooters are teenagers or young adults desperately needing emotional support. Committing a crime like this gives them the two things they want: recognition and death. Death also doesn’t act as a deterrent to those passionate about their causes. Domestic terrorists know the consequences and do what they do to see change, for better or worse.
But what if somebody’s so bad that rehabilitation doesn’t work? I don’t believe those people exist. Almost anybody can be rehabilitated if you provide them with a means of understanding the weight of their actions.
In my opinion, this is a far worse punishment than death. If you die, you die. But if you’re given the means to understand the consequences of your actions, you have to live with those consequences for the rest of your life.
This belief that human beings are inherently good drives the rehabilitation practices in places like Norway, Holland and Sweden. The rehabilitation of criminals allows them to reconcile with the victims of their crimes, should said victims want to reconcile. It creates a healthier criminal justice system where social isolation is the only real punishment.
And people who are truly so bad that they can’t be rehabilitated tend to face the wrath of society. For instance, Adolf Hitler was forced to hide in underground bunkers during the end of the Second World War. He committed suicide with his wife, Eva Braun, to avoid facing the newly formed United Nations (then known as the League of Nations). When somebody is truly evil, they have a target on their back. They won’t live very long.
The morality behind the death penalty
The final question is if it’s moral.
Several Bible passages use the phrase “an eye for an eye” regarding punishment. All these passages suggest that there should be some form of recompense for your actions. Leviticus 21 suggests that if you take something away from somebody, you should try to repent for its loss. These passages have been skewed to justify killing somebody who’s committed murder.
This became a slippery slope, though. As religious groups gained power in the middle ages, more actions started to warrant execution. It could happen for small reasons, such as being gay or speaking publicly as a woman.
That isn’t to say that those religions supported it. The two biggest religions on the planet, Christianity and Islam, definitely don’t. Neither the Bible nor the Quran state that executions are an okay punishment. Jesus states in the Bible that capital punishment is wrong by saying, “Let those who are without sin throw the first stone.” Jesus suggests that because nobody is without sin (remember, if you’ve ever been angry, you’ve sinned), that nobody has the right under God to execute another person.
The Quran also has a passage stating that murderers should have to pay a price. It doesn’t say that price must be death. The texts suggest offering labour or wealth as recompense. And this is generally how it worked until people started interpreting that as meaning that a murderer needed to be killed. This soon became a common interpretation, which led to the death penalty being used in most Islamic Middle Eastern and African countries.
When one group determines the laws for everybody else, the things that constitute the death penalty become arbitrary.
It wasn’t too long ago that being gay constituted the death penalty in Canada. It still does in some parts of the world. During the FIFA World Cup last year, Qatar became notorious for its human rights violations.
In recent years, support for the death penalty and capital punishment has lowered by about 7% in the US. And this is probably because people generally don’t like seeing others die. Opposition is also growing with the younger generation.
The death penalty doesn’t work because there is no worse punishment than death. Its origins in religious misconception have led to a long history of innocent people being executed. Due to this and a greater dislike for the criminal justice system we’ve, thankfully, begun moving past this chapter of our history.