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Death penalty and the United States

Dean Cahill, Special to The Quad

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The death penalty is an issue widely contested across the country. Not the world, however: only 43 of the 200 nations that participate in the United Nations routinely execute their prisoners.

The United States is one of the nations that uses the death penalty on its prisoners, and the U.S. seems to wear this as a badge of honor.

Gallup reports that 60 percent of Americans favor the use of capital punishment, a number that hasn’t dropped below 57 percent since 1972. A plurality of Americans also believe that this practice is “not used enough.”

While overall support for the death penalty is waning, potentially due to the methods currently used in the process, what cannot be denied is the fact that it is still the will of the people.

The use of the death penalty will not change until public opinion shifts. This article will not be an attempt to shift public opinion, even though it is my personal opinion on the values our nation has adopted that could lead to the death penalty being maintained deep into the modern age.

Violence has been a simple and effective way to maintain a power structure throughout the history of humanity, including much of the animal kingdom. This power structure can then be used to enforce a system of law, either based on the morals of the community or some third party (miscellaneous holy texts, the word of some supreme dictator, et cetera).

That being said, power structures based on dominance and enforced through violence have lasted so long because they are, for the most part, effective. An animal will follow the instructions of the alpha.

This theory falls apart, however, when one aspect is introduced. Life or death circumstances will often overtake this fear of authority. As Maslow stated, physiological needs outweigh an individual’s desire for safety. A poor child living in an impoverished area will steal food if it means that they won’t starve to death. And, as poverty is the largest catalyst to crime, it is no surprise that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime.

So we, being animals ourselves, are accustomed to violence as a way of demonstrating dominance and keeping control. Should we avoid human nature?

Well, as many nations have shown, it’s not difficult to abolish the death penalty. So there must be a more complex reason as to why the U.S. specifically is such an avid advocate of this practice, even though many other developed countries label this venture “barbaric.”

One potential explanation is the approach to crime taken in the United States. Whereas many nations in the developed world adopt a healthy mixture of rehabilitation and punishment, the U.S. seems to be heavily focused on the penalty aspect of the penal system, as opposed to helping the guilty reform. The problem with this is twofold:

  1. A focus on punishment (even capital punishment) does not decrease recidivism, and often hurts the chances of an offender successfully reintegrating into society, which can increase recidivism.
  2. Focusing on punishment, instead of rehabilitation, creates a divide between offenders and the rest of the population. When the two are divided as such, it is easy to demonize or dehumanize any criminal for breaking the social code. While the latter certainly has understandable and positive implications for society, there are certainly negative aspects to it as well.

Mob mentality, as well as the desire to maintain societal order, feed the flames of support for a violent offender’s execution. They are viewed as a danger to order, and, in the eyes of proponents, do not provide anything positive to society.

The problem is then exacerbated by the harsh, punishment-focused prison system, which has the potential to hinder the fight against crime and further strengthen the divide between the supporters of the death penalty and its casualties.

Dean Cahill is a first-year student majoring in English. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The Student News Service of West Chester University
Death penalty and the United States