Mainland China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea would likely register among most Americans’ lists as rogue regimes whose values fundamentally differ from ours. These are nations that have few qualms torturing their citizens. Our alliance with Saudi Arabia is one of necessity, but Americans, rightly, continue to hold deep suspicions regarding the regime. Iran has been at odds with the United States for nearly four decades, rumors regarding opaque China’s treatment of its political prisoners run rampant, and North Korea needs no explanation.
Those states are at fundamental odds with the United States. They generally do not share American values. They do not share a commitment to human freedom, rights, or liberties. There is, nevertheless, one list America shares with these countries.
The United States is a liberal user of capital punishment. Certainly, it may be possible that some countries execute more or less than stated. Mainland China has an incentive, for the sake of its international relations, to make the number of executions look low. North Korea may as well for the sake of prestige. On the other hand Saudi Arabia and Iran will find justification for capital punishment in the Quran and as expressly theocratic states, neither of those countries have an incentive to make their numbers appear lower than they are.
Whatever the case, this is not a list the United States ought to share. Capital punishment continues to be an expensive venture. A common objection to life in prison is the objection to the idea of paying for the living expenses of those convicted for heinous crimes.
While life in prison does mean living expenses must be covered by the taxpayer, it turns out that capital punishment is even more expensive, beginning from the case itself. These are resource intensive cases and can cost half a million more than cases without capital punishment.
Life in prison is life in prison. Convictions involving capital punishment can expect to extend for years as appeals and other legal options are pursued and exhausted. This is a necessary precaution. Given the fact that many capital punishment cases have been overturned, this safeguard cannot be eliminated. Constitutional due process rights don’t expire at conviction. Thus in capital punishment cases, not only is much more required to defend the case in the first place, but many years of housing and feeding are spent on the convicts anyway while the taxpayer covers the legal bill for the appeals process as well. Determining whether lives should be terminated is an expensive business.
This brings us to our next and most important point. Humans are fallible. Humans make mistakes. But mistakes do not magically disappear in cases where state sponsored executions are sought. An estimated 4.1% of the innocent are executed. Even if the number was to vary or be off the actual amount, the undeniable fact remains that innocent people are executed. Should we be so complacent in supporting a system where innocent civilians, those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, are collateral damage in a cathartic quest to see actual criminals executed? This is absolutely different from wartime. In war, civilian casualties are an unfortunate consequence of violent conflict. In peacetime on home soil, there is no urgency or rationale for execution.
Beyond the realm of statistics there is one question that is perhaps the most important when considering capital punishment: should the government have the power to execute its citizens? Ours is a nation that is terrified of the prospect of the federal government seizing our 300 million guns. Yet we are unconcerned that any innocent man or woman who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time may be selected for execution. We want to hold onto our guns and defend the Constitution at all costs lest the government slip into tyranny; yet why do we permit our government to engage in the kind of behavior against its citizens that is befitting of our enemies? Are we really so comfortable to stoop so low? If we surrender to our base impulses and denigrate the basic human rights of our citizens, does that not diminish our moral high ground?
Ours is a nation of freedom where we choose to believe that all men and women are endowed with inalienable rights that no governments are entitled to withhold. Capital punishment is the ultimate violation of those principles.