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
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 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.
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 Here in Connecticut, legislators repealed the death penalty, even though surveys show most Americans (62%, according to a recent Pew Poll) support capital punishment.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.
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