Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A rejoinder to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

About two months ago, Pascal-Emmanual Gobry wrote of his admittedly reluctant support for the death penalty. (Click here to read his blog post in full.) His chief purpose is to "demolish" the anti-death penalty arguments and to explain why he supports the death penalty. I believe his argument for the death penalty is ultimately unworkable and unconscionable (which is not to say that it is not well-thought-out) and his attempt to demolish anti-death penalty arguments partially neglects an important argument against the death penalty, albeit one I do not believe I have heard others use and that I confess is almost a question-begging argument.

I share Mr. Gobry's reluctance to endorse some of the anti-death penalty arguments, although sometimes for different reasons from what he offers:
  • Like him, I'm suspicious of the claim that "the death penalty is not a deterrent," not necessarily because I believe, as he does, that the sole purpose of "justice" is not to deter crime, but because I admit that even if it is a deterrent, its deterrent effect would not salve my opposition to it.
  • I actually disagree with his argument that the death penalty is not vengeance--I think one function of the state undertaking to punish someone is to exact something I cannot call by any other name than "vengeance"--but at the end of the day, I submit that even if we stipulate the death penalty to be '"vengeance," then its essence as "vengeance" does not disqualify it any more than it would disqualify any other punishment exacted by the state.
  • His argument against the claim that "the state should not kill people" works to the extent that his characterization of that claim is valid. His argument, quite simply, is that all societies allow some sort of state-sanctioned and state-implemented killing. I'll return to this argument later because my opposition is closely related to the claim that Mr. Gobry "demolishes" here. But again, if one accepts his characterization of the claim, then his counterargument at least lends food for thought to those who advance the claim.
  • He addresses, but by his own admission does not "demolish," the argument that there is a real possibility of a miscarriage of justice. He his very honest that he has no perfectly good answer, other than to make the following points in mitigation against that argument: it is hard to truly compensate someone who, say, loses 10 years of their life in prison after having been found innocent of what they were convicted of (one might also add that compensation in such cases is in some states non-existent and in others very small); the assertion that "[p]unishment of the innocent is terrible to contemplate whatever the punishment, and yet society must punish and will always be imperfect"; the hopeful claim that [w]ith increasing prosperity and improving evidentiary science miscarriages should only become less likely, not more." I personally find these points woefully inadequate by themselves. First, it may be hard to "truly" compensate someone for 10 lost years--or even 10 lost days--but at the end of the day the person comes out of it alive. Second, the claim that society must punish and will always be imperfect strikes me as a bit of a dodge, almost the same as saying "it has ever been thus, so why change it."Third , I question the extent to which "evidentiary science," and the jurisprudence to accommodate it, will actually advance to cover most claims of wrongful imprisonment (I'm unclear how DNA evidence can even exonerate persons in most cases, and it seems to me that the appeals process does not always acknowledge such evidence as conclusive when it comes to ordering new trials). Despite my objections to this point, I'll concede him this argument if only because the underlying claim is not my true rejection of the death penalty. (I do think this "anti" argument, along with the argument that the death penalty is disproportionately assigned to persons of color, to poorer people, and (I suspect) to men, can be a true rejection for someone who otherwise might approve the death penalty.)
Mr. Gobry's "pro" argument seems sincere, and I hope to present it fairly. Namely, he seems to argue that extended prison sentences are cruel and amount to "torture," and that the death penalty, at least in cases of long prison terms, is the less cruel option. He cites the reports of prison rape and violence as examples of this cruelty. He also finds it a skewed set of values to say that life is more important than liberty, whereas he would prefer liberty to be more important than life, at least when it comes to punishment. To be clear, he is emphatically not saying that life is to have no value, but that rescinding all liberty is an ultimately more severe and cruel punishment than taking life (bold in the original):
Prison is immoral, cruel and unjust, and particularly life imprisonment. If we want to talk about what punishments are too cruel and beyond the pale, and we should, extended prison terms strike me as much more cruel than the death penalty.
A free society should reflect in its laws the judgement that liberty is a higher value than life, though life is very important.
He goes on to say that his is not an argument for prison reform per se. In fact, his despair of the likelihood of effective prison reform--"everywhere, the way politics work ensures that they will remain this way, because there will never be strong coalitions in favor of making prison 'livable', if that were possible"--supports his assertion that the cruelty of prison is well nigh inexorable. He does concede the possibility of "short and 'medium' prison terms as punishment and rehabilitation." Still, the taking of liberty for life or for very long terms shocks, or should shock, the conscience of a putatively free "democratic" society.

Unlike Mr. Gobry in relation to his efforts against the anti-death penalty arugments, I cannot claim to "demolish" his own argument. But I have several reservations after which I find his argument wanting:
  • As I note above, he concedes the possibility of "short and 'medium' terms" of prison, presumably in in minimum- and medium-security facilities, which (or so I've heard) have fewer of the features that lead Mr. Gobry to characterize prison as "torture." However, given this concession, I don't understand how finely he would draw the line between "short and 'medium' terms" (or likewise minimum- or medium-security facilities) and the longer terms (and harsher facilities) that are allegedly more cruel than death. At what point--10 years? 20 years? 30 years?--is death the less cruel option? My understanding is that recidivism is sometimes ipso facto justification for putting someone in a higher-security facility and for longer terms, even if the crime itself would not otherwise justify it. It shocks my conscience for a third-time petty drug dealer who has been convicted of no other crime to be put to death rather than be sentenced to 20 years in a maximum security prison (I'll confess that I do not know the drug laws well enough to know punishments). Of course, my shocked conscience is no answer to Mr. Gobry's argument, relying as it does on the premise that extreme deprivation of liberty for long periods of crime is more cruel than death. (And perhaps he might suggest that the penalties for violations of drug laws ought to be revised downward. He does not claim the US justice system is perfect or ideal.)
  • To elaborate my shocked conscience reservation, I'll point out that Mr. Gobry's argument relies to some degree on the question of "how do we punish those horrible murderers" who do horrible things to people--at one point he says as much when he writes "there are evil, inexcusable murderers in the world. The question is what to do with them and, again, how far we are willing to go in terms of cruelty toward them?" What about the long prison sentences administered to white collar criminals or (sometimes) to non-violent drug offenders or to admittedly violent recidivists who nonetheless do not rise to the level of "evil, inexcusable murders"? It seems like Mr. Gobry would like to have it both ways: prison cannot be made better and we cannot justify the "torture" that is prison even when it comes to murderers, but when it comes to other criminals, well, we just won't talk about what happens to them. Of course, I must concede that a lot of criminals, especially white collar criminals, probably have minimum security sentences. But my point is, that if Mr. Gobry is going to call prison torture, and be consistent with his advocacy for, or at least acquiescence in the existence of, the death penalty, he needs to address this wider problem.
  • Mr. Gobry despairs of a political coalition that would reform the prison system to such a degree as to make American prisons more "livable." Yet the same quasi-privatized prison industrial complex (to use a loaded term) and the incentives among police officers and prosecutors to arrest and convict (and sentence to long terms) large numbers of people are (arguably at least) largely responsible for the continuance of long prison terms in conditions that Mr. Gobry probably accurately describes as torture. Why would that same complex be any more amenable to re-establishing the process that is due to alleged criminals that would prevent the false positives and miscarriages of justice that Mr. Gobry, in another section of his blog post, is so hopeful for? Again, my point here is not a full answer to Mr. Gobry's argument, relying as it does on a quasi-conspiratorial vision of a "prison industrial complex" (obviously, I'm sympathetic to the charge that it does exist and is pernicious, but I confess that if someone were to call me on it, I don't have at my disposal the evidence to prove it) and counteracting only a portion of Mr. Gobry's larger argument about extreme deprivations of liberty.
  • Whose to say that extreme deprivation of liberty is indeed worse than death? For what it's worth, I believe the horror stories about prison are at least sometime true, and I fear that they are chronically true, and I think it's an outrage and would prefer that something be done. It is also facile of me to claim that a life in prison is a life worth living. But maybe there is something valuable to maintaining life, even in a place as hellish as the worst stories of prison. Again, maybe not. But unless I'm the product of reincarnation--and if so, then my memory has been duly erased--I have never died and don't know what it's like to die and on some level I confess to being afraid of dying even though I know that it is inevitable.
Again, none of the preceding reservations actually "demolish" Mr. Gobry's argument. But they are strong enough to convince me, at least, to reject it.

Finally, I'll say that Mr. Gobry's efforts to "demolish" the anti-death penalty arguments rejects another argument, the one akin to the claim that "the state should not kill people" and the one I promised to return to. As I said above, he has quite a powerful point when he says that the state already approves of and takes part in killing in at least some circumstances that most opponents of the death penalty would probably accept (a police officer shooting a suspect in self defense, a soldier shooting a soldier in the army of a country with which the US is at war). Therefore, it is hard to advance this argument. Moreover, Mr. Gobry is not setting up a straw man. There are, apparently, people who make this argument, and if you read his post, he links to one of them.

But there is a related argument, albeit more qualified and perhaps also a bit question-begging (in a similar way that the argument he "demolishes" is also question-begging: if one accepts that "the state should not kill" it's a 360 degree leap to get to the conclusion that of course, the death penalty is not right). Here is the--and my--argument:
The state should not kill a person once that person no longer poses an immediate threat to society.
In other words, it is, at least in theory, okay for the state (e.g., a police officer) to kill in immediate self-defense (one hears certain anecdotes and wonders how many such killings are, in fact, self defense), but not after the state has detained or otherwise neutralized the alleged criminal.

I acknowledge that my "argument" is almost no argument at all; it almost completely begs--i.e., assumes as evidence--that which I intend to "prove" with it. Someone, having accepted my formulation, must in most cases probably also deny the death penalty. The burden on me is to prove the validity of my formulation--the question that I beg--and not the almost perfectly valid conclusion I draw from it.

I say it "almost completely" begs the question because there are still some gray areas. There is (probably) no such thing as pure immediacy when it comes to threats or anything else outside the "approaches to zero" we find in differential calculus: how mediated does the immediate have to be before it's no longer "immediate"? I don't know exactly. I draw the line at the time the suspect is handcuffed. But what about the possibility of escape? Ted Bundy apparently escaped, and to kill again. What about the possibility of an "extremist martyr"? At least some argument is to be made that had the architect of the Oklahoma City bomber not been killed, he as a "political" prisoner might prove a rallying point for like minded extremists in a more violent way than he would not otherwise have been. (Maybe not; his co-conspirator was not sentenced to death, if I recall, and however such extremists might revere him, he doesn't seem to have been the focal point of more violence.)

And here I see the insufficiency of my "rejoinder" to Mr. Gobry. It boils down to this: he did not address my argument, and there are certain points he left unexplored (how to account for the way the prison system is) or assumed a priori (liberty trumps life when it comes to extreme punishment). But there I do see our differences.

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