Hannibal, Eichmann, and The Death Penalty
You’ll forgive me, but I’ve been thinking about the Death Penalty recently and, being opposed to it, I’ve also been thinking about why it is that sooooo very many arguments against it fall flat and, while they might be personally sufficient for any one person, why they don’t do a particularly good job when thrown against the brick wall that is another person. I think I’ve got an answer.
One of the go-to arguments in any discussion of abortion is the case whose point is to, get the nose of the camel in the tent. Those of you who have participated in abortion arguments are used to these examples, I’m sure, to the point where we all can rattle them off like a litany no matter which side of the fence you’re on and, then, when the hemming and hawing starts, we all know what comes next: “well, now we’re haggling.”
And so a person who might personally oppose the use of a D&X procedure in the 8 1/2th month as a form of birth control (as I imagine many of us do) but fully support a procedure for a 1st Trimester is seen as, you guessed it, “pro-choice” (as I also imagine many of us do).
This strikes me as a fairly powerful argument.
The death penalty argument doesn’t seem to work that way, though. When example of why we need to abandon the death penalty are asked for, we usually get examples like Troy Davis or Cameron Todd Willingham… people who are arguably not guilty (and well within “shadow of a doubt” territory)… but, it seems to me, the counter-argument for “improving the system” and for making sure that innocent people just aren’t executed address these examples while these examples do not address the extreme examples that one could give in support of the death penalty.
And, lemme tell ya, our culture is positively *SWIMMING* in extreme examples that one could give in support of the death penalty. Most of them are, of course, feverish nightmares that haven’t actually happened… but why let that get in the way of anything?
I saw the first episode of the first season of Hannibal the other night (it’s available on Amazon Prime, those of you who are Primely Amazonian) and it deals with a guy (Will Graham, if you are familiar with Hannibalnalia) who is asked to be a profiler for one of the three letter agencies who finds himself in situations where he analyzes gruesome murders for a living and (first episode spoiler) the first show culminates in a scene where he shoots a bad guy (shoots and kills, even). You, the viewer, are left thinking some variant of “Whew. Good.”
So when it comes to the death penalty, you’re immediately faced with some sort of question of “well, was it okay (or ethical or moral or what have you) for this guy to kill that one?” and your lower self, your endocrine system, your lizard system has already responded fairly enthusiastically and, well, now we’re haggling.
This is troublesome for the death penalty argument, it seems to me. Hannibal is only one show out of… what? Dozens? That have great examples of people who “just need killin'” and we tune in week after week after week to get the catharsis payoff we’ve been hoping for.
As such, week after week, we give ourselves example after example of circumstances under which we’d support the death penalty (well, based on our emotional responses, anyway).
As for the argument that these fantastic examples are little more than figments of imagination and that Serious Adults should be able to make policy decisions based on reality rather than on fiction, hey, sure. I’m right with ya. Which brings me to how those who argue against the death penalty use Troy Davis or Cameron Todd Willingham rather than Adolf Eichmann.
To appeal to the innocent and to not deal with the truly guilty isn’t exceptionally persuasive because I’m pretty sure that we could get pretty much 98% of the country to agree that innocent people shouldn’t be executed, after all. The only people likely to disagree are judges and prosecutors. People who are innocent are not arguments against the death penalty per se, they’re arguments that the system itself is flawed and, it seems to me, an argument about making the system better would address that particular problem, or go a long way toward doing so (hey, we’re haggling!). As for the other arguments (arguments that I’m certain we’ll get into in the comments), those arguments need to be weighed up against Eichmann and still stand.
And more than that, we have a society that, in 2013 alone, had 38 executions and, like in the television show, 309 killings by a law enforcement agent. (2013 was a pretty good year, 2012 had 42 and 587, respectively.) It seems to me that an argument against the death penalty that does not also address killings in the line of duty is also woefully inadequate to the task of changing things with regards to our culture’s overwhelming approval of the death penalty.
We swim in a sea of constant “but what about” pop culture counter-examples and regularly get a shot of endorphins when we see our nemesis of the hour/episode/season get shot or get the needle. Any argument that focuses on the outlying cases like Troy Davis or Cameron Todd Willingham will not have a whole lot of resonance for those who spend most of their time, if thinking about the death penalty at all, thinking about how “it’s about time!” when the cops kick down a door and empty a magazine of bullets into the bad guy.