With the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign in full swing, the issue of capital punishment has again surfaced in America. Again we hear social scientists echoing Amnesty International’s contention that capital punishment “has never been shown to deter crime more effectively than other punishments.”
Whether the death penalty will deter would-be murderers depends on three factors:
(1) The potential murderer must know in advance that, if he commits murder, there is a very high probability of his being apprehended, and soon after the perpetration of his crime.
(3) He must know in advance that, having been convicted, he will be executed without protracted delays.
I dare say that the combination of these three factors—if made a conspicuous aspect of social reality—will prevent a large majority of murders committed in any society. To put it in the form of an equation: the number of murders in any society is inversely proportional to the certainty and celerity of the culprit’s apprehension, conviction, and execution.
Unfortunately, none of these factors operate to a significant extent in contemporary democratic societies. This explains, to a large extent, their high murder rates.
Twenty years ago it was reported that roughly 67% of the murders committed in the United States go unsolved. Only half of all suspects arrested are convicted. Moreover, not only is it rare for any convicted murderer to be executed—and then only after long stays or delays—but the median sentence for murder is six years!
Things have not changed much since then, which is why the law mandating capital punishment is not very effective in deterring murder. This is also a reflection, however, on America’s judicial system, more pointedly, on the judges’ conception of human nature, of good and evil, of moral responsibility—all of which is influenced by the doctrine of moral relativism propagated by the social sciences.
One of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, Gouverneur Morris, declared: “Insofar as our judicial institutions may accelerate the performance of duties, promote the cause of virtue, and prevent the perpetration of crimes, in that same degree ought it to be estimated and cherished.” This leads to a deeper level of the issue.
Those who claim the death sentence does not deter murder are fond of using statistics to bolster their position. They find that the murder rate in countries with capital punishment does not differ significantly from that of countries where capital punishment has been abolished. Or they discover that the murder rate in a particular state does not increase after its abolition of capital punishment.
The fallacy here is a bit subtle. To begin with—and excluding Israel, where the murder of Jews by Arab terrorists has become more or less acceptable to Israel’s government—some criminologists forget that a people’s attitude toward murder does not readily change even after a generation. The fact that civilized people have regarded murder, from time immemorial, as the most heinous of crimes is a moral and psychological deterrent. This deterrent does not evaporate with the abolition of capital punishment.
Indeed, the law requiring the death sentence for premeditated murder is perhaps the most significant and solid manifestation of civilization, of a civilized society’s abhorrence of those who obliterate an innocent life. Fortunately, abhorrence of murder has not been entirely eroded in this era of triumphant secularism, except among Israel’s ruling elites, who have released more than 7,000 Arab Jew-killers or who tolerate the murder of Jews as the price of “peace.”
Even though various countries have abolished capital punishment, the moral if not religious inhibition against murder is still largely operative (except among countless Muslims, who exalt homicide bombers and who danced in the streets after 9/11).
One cannot put civilization in a laboratory to test the deterrent effect of capital punishment in the short time perspective of superficial social scientists.
The preceding is not intended as an argument for capital punishment, concerning which the present author has various reservations. But those claiming that the death penalty does not deter murder might just as well contend that no form of punishment deters crime—in which case society might as well empty its prisons.
More significant for consideration by serious people is the obscene violence—the cheapening of life—portrayed in the cinema and on television, where even murderers are sometimes glamorized.
Studies in the U.S. indicate that many young children watching TV cannot distinguish between the “good” guys and the “bad” guys—a nice commentary on the moral relativism or equivalence that permeates virtually every level of education in the democratic world.
Perhaps the place to begin to deter murder is to examine critically the prevailing doctrines of our universities—the doctrine of those who educate youth. But let us also bear in mind those who set an example to youth by selectively patronizing Arab terrorists. One is coming to Israel to talk to Mahmoud Abbas.