Death Be Not Proud

4 minute read

I belong to a generation of Europeans for whom the United States embodies democracy, progress and liberty. I went there as a student after the war. I have never forgotten the warmth and friendship that the American people showed me. In a word, I belong to that vanishing species: the Americanophile.

That is why I am writing this article. I don’t believe that Americans fully understand how their use of the death penalty has profoundly degraded the country’s image in the eyes of other democratic nations. Today, all the Western democracies have abolished the death penalty. Almost all of Europe has banished it. Can one seriously believe that, if it constituted an effective instrument for fighting murderous crimes, the leaders of Europe’s great states would not have reinstated it long ago? Every study done in the abolitionist countries has reached the same conclusion: the death penalty has never been a deterrent to crime. In the U.S. itself, the murder rate is higher in Texas than it is in the 12 states that have dropped the death penalty.

Today, 88% of all known executions in the world are carried out by four countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. What, apart from the death penalty, does the U.S. have in common with those countries? Useless as an instrument to fight crime, capital punishment brings with it all the evils of Western society: racism, social injustice, economic and cultural inequality. These traits are not unique to America, but they take on a particular intensity when viewed in light of the death penalty.

Capital punishment is infected by racism. African-Americans and Hispanics are the most at risk. Are they condemned to death more often than whites because their crimes are more atrocious or because they are black or Hispanic? This question alone should suffice in a democratic society to rule out the death penalty, as it has in South Africa.

The death penalty is not only racist but inegalitarian. Most prisoners on death row come from the poorest classes, those excluded from American society. They’re criminals, we are told. Without a doubt. But has the society that puts them to death really given them the same chance as those more fortunate? Moreover, capital punishment strikes mainly those who don’t have the money to hire competent, motivated and well-paid lawyers. Financial inequality before the law can lead to the worst possible consequences. Do Americans know that during a period of almost 20 years after the U.S. reinstated the death penalty, the overall rate of prejudicial error in the capital punishment system was 68%? Worse still, many innocent people have been condemned to death. Some have been saved in extremis, but how many others have been executed without anyone asking for a reconsideration of the trial? If a crime that goes unpunished is a challenge to society, the execution of an innocent person is the worst act that any community of free men can commit. It is the complete negation of justice. What kind of justice is it that, in order to avenge victims, becomes criminal itself by executing innocent people?

What about the barbaric practice, in the 21st century, of executing the feeble-minded and mentally defective, or the men and women whose crimes were committed when they were minors? What kind of society is it that treats adolescents as adults when it comes to sentencing them to death? Is this society ignorant of the fact that every adolescent is a human being in progress; that for every young murderer, part of the responsibility lies with the parents, the associates, the brief life he has lived so far — all of which means he cannot be considered guilty in the same way as an adult?

It is true that the suffering of the victims calls for both justice and punishment. But to make the execution of the criminal a bloody retribution for the victim’s pain is a return to the darkest practices of the past. Other forms of punishment exist. The criminal’s death does not bring the victim back. It merely adds one death to another, and adds society’s injustices to the horror of the crime.

When France abolished the death penalty in 1981 and I gave the guillotine to a museum, there were 35 abolitionist nations in the world. Today, there are 108, de facto and de jure, among the 189 that belong to the U.N. Therefore, I ask my American friends: Where is your place in the world, you who aspire to assume its leadership, not just militarily and technologically, but also morally and culturally? Among the democrats who have banned the death penalty? Or alongside totalitarian China and fanatical Iran?

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