In Counterpunch, our Justin Smith on ending the death penalty.
What is it we are doing when we execute someone? One bit of insight into the true nature of capital punishment may be discerned by considering the odd practice of keeping death-row prisoners on suicide watch. Why bother if the plan is to execute them anyway? Part of the answer seems to be that the aim of capital punishment is not simply to bring it about that the prisoners are dead, but to bring it about that they are killed. In this respect, even if we do not eat their remains, their deaths resemble the ritual slaughter of animals more than we might like to think. There is moreover an important conceptual difference worth pausing on for a moment between slaughter and extermination: nobody would object if a vermin exterminator found a method of getting pigeons or raccoons or rats to commit suicide, while a cow that killed itself would no doubt be deemed inedible. Capital punishment, then, is not the practice of reducing the number of living murderers in the world. It is an ancient and savage spectacle that can be traced back to pagan sacrifice of both humans and animals, but cleaned up and made palatable through modern institutional procedures, through the legitimizing apparatus of euphemism- filled paperwork, lengthy delays and somber expressions conveying the impression that, when, the moment finally comes, it has to be that way.
Abolitionism, as opposed to reformism, would refuse to accept the somber tone of the judges and sheriffs and governors, by replying: no, it does not have to be that way. The balance of justice can be maintained without periodic sacrifices. Abolitionism would advertise the moral taint these public figures invite through their involvement in the affair, and it would show why the reformist arguments by themselves, while useful for saving the lives of individual Death Row inmates, fail to take seriously the fundamental incompatibility of capital punishment with other basic principles of morality and justice that our society claims to accept.