Murderers, rapists, child abusers and serial killers are the bastard children of our society. They represent all that is most wrong about it; the inequality, poverty and materialism which foment violence, the objectification of women, the sexualisation of children, the straitjackets imposed on individuals by religious and social mores, the oppression of the powerless by the powerful. They are symbols of all those intractable evils which inevitably lead to sorrow.
It seems we still believe that by vesting all of these wrong things in the individuals who demonstrate them most obviously, we can somehow deal with them. In terms of capital punishment, it seems to me that the debate somehow takes place on the wrong territory, or, perhaps, on two territories which are so disparate that there can be no overlap.
On the one hand, there are those who oppose it, who utilise arguments relating to humanity and deterrence. On the other, supporters of the death penalty speak about scum, monsters, “deserving it”, “having it coming to them”. Both, by their own lights, are making good arguments, but the former are speaking about human beings and the latter about ritual scapegoats, and so there is no common language. The anguish and suffering which is abhorrent to the antis is, for the pros, part of the point.
If capital punishment were just about taking the life of the condemned party, and no more than that, it would surely be very different. We can kill animals swiftly and humanely, surely we could do the same for human beings. However, it is not about that; the awful process surrounding it, the dreadful countdown, the grisly details of strapping and hooding, the all-but-certainty of the final agonies during the act of execution; all these are part of the ancient ceremony of the scapegoat, still being enacted today.