Friday, May 2, 2014

A Reader Writes: "I Wonder WHY the Murder Rate Is Higher in States That Allow Execution?"

Yesterday, in response to my posting about the botched (and barbaric) execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma several days ago, a_leah asked, "I'm opposed to capital punishment anyway, but I wonder WHY the murder rate is higher in states that allow execution?" I think that's a good question, one well worth pursuing: why is it that the murder rate is frequently higher in the U.S. in states that practice capital punishment, while it's lower in states that outlaw capital punishment? As it's lower in many nations that have abolished capital punishment, while higher in many nations that still permit the death penalty . . . ?

As I thought about a_leah's question, I thought about an essay that the Arkansas country doctor whose work I published last year, Wilson R. Bachelor, wrote on 1 August 1893. His essay calling for the abolition of capital punishment (and entitled "The Death Penalty") was published in a local newspaper in northwest Arkansas, I think, and is preserved in a scrapbook in which he kept clippings of articles he had written in the 1890s, which were published in local papers. I published it in my book Fiat Flux: The Writings of Wilson R. Bachelor, Nineteenth-Century Country Doctor and Philosopher (Fayetteville: Univ. of AR Press, 2013).

Bachelor frames his critique of capital punishment by saying that it is a "relic of barbarism" that should no more fall across the "salt of civilization" than the wheel or the rack on which accused criminals were once broken. He then notes that "[t]he object of punishment it is said is two-fold—the reformation of the criminal, and to deter others from committing crime."

But in his view accurate assessment of what the death penalty accomplishes shows us the following: 

So far from preventing crime it seems often to stimulate it, by obtunding the sensibilities, hardening the heart and strangely fascinating the animal propensities . . . . Murdering and suicides are much increased by the presence of danger. It gives rise to a sensation akin to a feeling some people experience when standing on the edge of a precipice that they must jump off.

And then he goes on to say,

Why don't the executions, torturing and burnings in the South deter rapists? Why are men casting about trying to find some way to destroy life without pain? Certainly because they have become more civilized and refined. When a stream of decapitated heads rolled from the guillotine in France did it deter anybody? Constant contact with criminals and executions blunt the sensibilities even of an enlightened conscience. Sometimes innocent people are executed. 

And he also notes,

The death penalty was abolished in Holland, Switzerland, Portugal, Belgium and Roumania, also Michigan, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Maine in the United States. Crime did not increase.   

The man writing this essay lived in northwestern Arkansas near the Oklahoma border from 1870 to 1903. He wrote this essay calling for the abolition of the death penalty as a relic of barbarism that does not deter violent crime that also elicits violent passion in societies that practice it in 1893. The gist of his argument is that a civilized society does not effectively address violence in its midst by practicing violence in return for violence.

It's absolutely true that Clayton Lockett was convicted of heinous crimes, including sexual assault, robbery, kidnapping, and murder. The question to be asked, however, is whether addressing heinous crimes including murder with more taking of human life in any way effectively addresses those crimes, and the roots from which they stem. 

The further question that I hear this long-ago Arkansas country doctor asking: Does a society really quell the violence that springs forth in its midst by adding violence to violence? Or does it do precisely the opposite when it practices violence as a solution to violence — does it only stimulate more violence? As Bachelor's essay entitled "Mob Law," which also appears in my book, notes, the lynchings that were everywhere in evidence in the South in which he was writing these essays in the 1890s did nothing to stop the violence they were purported to be targeting. Instead, they only fomented more violence.

According to Leon Litwack in his essay "Hellhounds" (in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, ed. James Allen, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwack [Santa Fe: Twin Palms, 2000]), in the late 19th and early 20th century, two or three black Southerners were hanged, burned at the stake, or quietly murdered every week (p. 12). In the 1890s, when Bachelor wrote his essay calling for the abolition of the death penalty, an average of 139 lives were claimed each year by lynching, a majority of these black men, Litwack notes. As he also points out, few of those who engaged in these activities were ever brought to trial (p. 20). Juries routinely concluded that those lynched had met their deaths at the hands of unknown parties even when an entire community knew who had perpetrated the lynching.

Bachelor wrote his essay about the death penalty in the midst of a wave of violence directed against black citizens of the South almost unimaginable today. His statements about how some of those executed by the state may actually be innocent, and his question about whether using violence to address violence ever really quells violence, reflect the situation in which he was living: they reflect a society in which lynching was being used as a tool of social control of a racial minority, with spurious claims that this minority represented a violent threat to the white majority that warranted the use of violence to repress the minority.

I think the questions Bachelor asks in his essay on the death penalty are questions well worth asking. I also think that it's not to the credit of my own state or nearby states, many of whose citizens still jubilate in the death penalty (especially for criminals from the lowest echelons of society, many of whom are people of color), that we have given so little consideration — for over 100 years — to the argument proposed in this 1893 essay and published in a small-town Arkansas newspaper calling for the abolition of the death penalty. 

The photo of Wilson Richard Bachelor was taken about 1890 in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and is the frontispiece to my book.

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