Editor’s Note: In the spring of 2012, Governor Malloy of Connecticut signed a repeal of the state’s death penalty. Like most Americans (and most Connecticut residents), I’m pro-capital punishment, but I’m not really proud of it.

Braking Our Baser Instincts

Connecticut Yankees make good center-left moderates. Our state allows unbridled contraception and gay marriage; we’ve just tossed out many of our blue laws, and we’re in the process of legalizing medical marijuana. And our governor just signed the repeal of the death penalty.

I’m marginally pro-death penalty myself, but not even strongly enough for it to affect how I vote. Although I don’t believe, even slightly, it’s a deterrent, it does have the redeeming quality of satisfying the desire for retribution in a primitive, Old Testament form of justice. However, I don’t consider this one of the better angels of my nature or society’s, and I’m not proud I feel this way.

In “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Albert Camus wrote that viewing executions turned him against capital punishment. Legal scholar John Bessler posited that public executions might have the same effect on Americans. Catholic nun Helen Prejean, a death penalty opponent whose book “Dead Man Walking” became a critically acclaimed movie, has urged that those in favor of executions be forced to watch one.

Prejean hopes, like Camus, that spectators would be so horrified they’d change their opinion; however, in our voyeuristic society, most people probably wouldn’t need to be forced to watch. A pay-per-view lethal injection is likely to be a big money maker.

Back in the 20th century, some American crusaders wanted boxing banned as too dangerous. That seems like a quaint idea, now that we broadcast more-sadistic forms of “ultimate” fighting, where men in metal cages beat each other to a pulp. Add brass knuckles or baseball bats, and this would be even more of a ratings winner.

The hit movie “The Hunger Games” deals with a dystopian society in which viewers are entertained by watching children forced to kill each other in a lethal variation of CBS’s “Survivor.” Early in the movie, a character speculates on what would happen if no one watched, but it’s made clear it’s just wishful thinking, because people will always watch.

In a nonscientific Facebook survey, I asked who’d tune in to a “Hunger Games”-style contest or watch a televised execution. Not a single person would admit to being a potential viewer, but I suspect this has a lot to do with keeping up appearances, because, in all honesty, if the monsters who murdered the Petit family in Cheshire, Connecticut, were being executed on ESPN, I’m not sure I wouldn’t watch. Again, it’s not something I’m proud to admit.

Daniel Mannix’s book “The Way of the Gladiator” describes an era so degenerate and sadistic as to sound like fiction to a modern reader. Imperial Rome’s gladiatorial games included mass executions, individual combat to the death, staged battles, women and children fed to starving animals, rape, animal slaughter and inventive forms of torture, all as spectator sport. The Coliseum even hosted public crucifixions, where fans placed bets on who’d die first and who’d linger the longest.

Gladiatorial combat began as small-scale religious rituals performed at the funerals of prominent Romans. However, as the politically ambitious exploited it to garner popular support, arenas hosted increasingly larger spectacles, and the mob, grown ever-more degraded, demanded increasingly barbaric entertainment. By the reign of Emperor Trajan, the carnage could last for months and often produced more than 10,000 corpses.

During the subsequent centuries, mankind’s innate barbarism has rarely been restrained by the state or the church, and wasn’t improved very much when the two were united in medieval Europe. Gunter Grass’s novel “The Tin Drum” characterized the history of the 20th century as “barbaric, mystical and bored.” Like the marooned children in “The Lord of the Flies,” civilized society has always had a disturbingly thin veneer.

Conservatives have little faith in governments’ ability to improve society, and they’re often right. However, it can’t hurt when the state stakes out the moral high ground, in opposition to human nature. Here in Connecticut, legislators repealed the death penalty, even though surveys show most Americans (62%, according to a recent Pew Poll) support capital punishment.

As one of only 17 U.S. states without a death penalty, Connecticut is in the company of 139 nations, including Canada and Western Europe — i.e., most of the developed world. The remaining two-thirds of U.S. states are aligned with such countries as China, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Cuba and Somalia. Despite my personal preference for capital punishment, I don’t see this association as something to brag about.

At their best, governments should elevate and civilize their citizenry. By repealing the death penalty, Connecticut’s legislature has put itself on a higher moral plane than a majority of its constituents, who, like myself, presumably would not have voted for repeal. Because they’ve shown themselves to be better than I am, I have to respect my representatives, and I can’t help feeling a certain amount of pride in being a Connecticut Yankee.

Click here to return to the Mark Drought home page.