Will the hangman really solve society's crime problem?

MIKE LITTWIN

January 06, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

In most cases, the best argument in favor of capita punishment is the person who actually ends up on the wrong end of the rope.

Let's take the monster (that's the right word) they just strung up in Walla Walla, Wash. All he did was torture, rape and murder three young boys.

Well, that's not all he did. He also told the world, in case the world had any doubts about him, that if ever released, "I will kill and rape again and enjoy every minute of it."

Are you going to waste any tears on this creep?

The guy (I'm not going to use his name; he doesn't deserve any form of immortality) might as well be a poster boy for capital punishment, if we needed one. We don't. Americans believe in capital punishment the way they do in mom, flag, apple pie and your other basic, defining verities. A recent poll had it at 72 percent.

There are some who are a little squeamish about the method used in this latest execution, however. As you probably heard, they hanged the guy. Somehow hanging doesn't feel right in 1993. It's an anachronism, something they did in Western movies and usually without benefit of a trial. If you're going to hang people at the close of the 20th century, why not bring out a guillotine, too?

The problem is that hanging seems all so, well, low-tech and, um, brutal.

But isn't that the point?

Shouldn't it be brutal?

Let's be honest. Does anyone really believe that capital punishment (what a great euphemism) is a deterrent to anyone or anything? Do you think when somebody chooses to murder another person, he thinks to himself, right before pulling the trigger, "Hey, no problem, all they can do to me is lock me up in prison for every day until I die."

People kill in rage. Or they kill on drugs. Or they kill casually, cold-bloodedly. However they do it -- usually with guns, but that's another story -- the crime seems to have little relationship to the punishment. In the states where they practice capital punishment in earnest, Texas and Florida, there is still murdering aplenty.

The reason we favor capital punishment is that, at the most basic level, we believe in revenge. An eye for an eye.

The hanging was a little strange in that respect. Those who wanted to stop the execution insisted hanging is cruel and unusual punishment. Though the courts rejected this argument, the state didn't seem entirely convinced. At the site, when the hangmen put the hood on the guy and dropped the noose around his neck and pulled the trap door, they did their work behind a screen so all the witnesses could see were shadows. Somebody had determined that seeing a man hang would be too gruesome.

But whether it's revenge or deterrence you're after, it seems the more gruesome the better. Maybe stoning, then, would be a good idea. You stone somebody, it's going to make an impression. Put it on the networks, if there's no Amy Fisher movie on that day. Or, if the guy tortured his victims, torture him back. That might wake some people up. It should make some people feel better, anyway.

But is vengeance sufficient cause to justify what Amnesty International says is a human-rights violation? Mull over this: No other Western democracy practices state-sanctioned killing (another way to say capital punishment) or, for that matter, has a significant murder rate. We're in league with South Africa and China in the execution business.

Why us?

Maybe because we can't think of anything better to do. People tell themselves that if capital punishment is not the answer, maybe it's one answer.

And obviously we're desperate for something that will work. There was a record number of murders -- 335 -- in the city of Baltimore last year. In Maryland, where no one has been executed since 1961, some people want to limit the appeals process for those on death row. There are 13 people there now. Will killing them stop the killing on the streets?

Obviously, the issues are slightly more complicated than that. They always are. You have to ask yourself why there are so many murders. Drug trafficking is a reason. Poverty is a reason. A lack of respect for human life is a reason. That it's easier to find a semiautomatic weapon than it is to find hope in many of our neighborhoods is a reason.

These are tough, societal problems that require tough, societal solutions.

I'm not sure who has the answers. But do you really think it's the hangman?

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