Sauce for the Goose


Mississippi lawmakers are advancing a bill to bring back firing squads in the event that they continue to be unable to get lethal injection drugs.[1]

As someone who generally questions the legitimacy of the state (all states!) you can probably guess that I don’t believe a social contract can be extended to agreeing to allow “your” government to kill you. That seems to be a stretch.

Murat facing the firing squad, "Not in the head. Here."

Murat facing the firing squad, “Not in the head. Here.”

But the bloody-minded stupidity of these legislators deserves a response. I’d like to propose a “Sauce For The Goose” law, which says, basically, that lawmakers are specifically not allowed to enjoy any social experience that is above and beyond what they legislate for the electorate. In other words, they are not allowed better medical care than the most uninsured voter in their state. They are not allowed private housing, they are only allowed the basic public housing that the most unfortunate voter in their state is provided. And, now that they want to bring back firing squads, they should get a chance to experience that, as well.

Of course I don’t think it’s proper to put people in front of firing squads. But Mississippi lawmakers do. So, they should give it a try, see how they like it, and report back to us.

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My feelings on the topic of capital punishment are complicated, and have changed back and forth through time. My feelings about politicians haven’t changed so much, I remain deeply distrustful of anyone who wants power.

It seems to me that there is an argument that retaliation is necessary in society: when someone does something that is sufficiently far outside the popular consensus (here a moralist might say “something wrong”) they need to be stopped and – if they don’t get the message – stopped permanently. Norway’s response to Anders Brievik seems to me to be the best: warehouse him for the rest of his life, where he can’t do any more harmful things, and may serve as an example to others. It’s the “serve as an example to others” part that society pretends to ignore: basically, it’s making a threat. “If you are too nonconformist, this is what we will do to you.” The question is always what is too nonconformist, and how do you prevent the majority from inflicting their opinion on a minority.

In the case of capital punishment, given that it has all too often been a tool of repression along race/religious lines, I don’t think it should be a tool at the disposal of the state.

Ivan Boesky. $100 million fine, for making $200 million in insider trading. Net: $100 million.

Ivan Boesky. $100 million fine, for making $200 million in insider trading. Net: $100 million.

Furthermore, the state’s argument is often inconsistent: “capital punishment is a deterrent.” Well, at the point where someone is convicted and sentenced on a capital charge, clearly they were not deterred. So the logic gets convoluted: “we have to execute this person because if we don’t, then capital punishment loses its deterrent value for others.”  In other words, society wants to execute someone to show that it can execute someone. I don’t think the lawmakers in Mississippi are attempting to justify capital punishment intellectually. They are engaged in sheer bloody-minded threatening behavior: “Look how tough we are. You do not want to mess with us.”  That, by the way, is what I believe is really going on with torture. It’s not about getting information, it’s about trying to scare potential enemies by showing how dangerous you are to mess with. It’s a form of negotiating ploy that’s barbaric to the core – Ghengis Khan used to have a policy that if a city didn’t immediately surrender, everyone in it would be killed. It worked. But I don’t think even the great Khan tried to justify it in terms of political philosophy – it was just how he operated, and complaining about it was also a bad idea. Brute force saves a great deal of discussion.

Underneath it all, that’s what I believe the lawmakers in Mississippi want: rule by brute force.

The US prison system has always struck me as contradictory. Some people want to pretend that you “do your time” and are then rehabilitated into society. Except that society obviously doesn’t accept that you are rehabilitated – you’re permanently moved into an underclass, unless you were a “white collar criminal” who managed to commit your crimes without physically harming someone, and made a great deal of money at it. If you made a great deal of money at it, you can do like Ivan Boesky or Michael Milken (whose campaigns of financial ravishment probably resulted in a few suicides) – Milken and Boesky paid fines amounting to less than half of what they “earned” during their criminal careers. Consequentialists, take note. The US justice system can’t decide whether it’s trying to rehabilitate people, permanently get rid of them, deter others, or just hurt people. Obviously, “rehabilitate” sounds nice and cuddly, but it doesn’t even come close to matching what’s going on. Deterrence sounds “tough on crime” but equally clearly, deterrence doesn’t work – if it did, there would be no crime at this point. I therefore conclude that they’re just bloody-minded authoritarians who want to hurt people. The rest is just window-dressing.

Strangely, I am somewhat sympathetic. When I think of people like the Mississippi lawmakers, I understand the desire to stomp someone into a mess, to scare their kind into behaving. I really do.

Comments

  1. says

    A death penalty has never been shown to be a deterrent. If it was, you wouldn’t have so many people sitting on death row across the country. There’s a breakdown in thinking there, because people who do things which would result in such a penalty are either committed to their act and don’t care, impaired beyond reason, desperate, panicked, or more. You don’t stop and think “this could get me the death penalty”. If you were thinking that clearly, you wouldn’t do it.

    It’s nothing more than vengeance, and a christian based vengeance at that. Americans will tsk in faux horror over “those people” cutting off the hands of someone who steals, but have no qualms about executing swathes of people for no good reason. Hypocrisy at its finest. Christianity is, in large part, based on vengeance. It has a bloodthirsty prick of a god, and people who like that.

    I fully understand the desire to see someone dead. The first time I faced the man who tried to kill me in court, I would not have hesitated to kill him while he sat chained. That would not have changed what he did to me; it would not have brought back those he did successfully murder. I spent time with the littered wreckage of victims that piece of shit left, and most of them didn’t want the death penalty enacted, even if it had been possible at that time. He’ll die in prison, and I’m okay with that, because he has said to my face, and to others, that if he ever got out, he’d go right back to it. Even if he swore he’d reformed, I’d be okay with him being locked up for life. I know that doesn’t make me a great person, and I don’t care.

    Back to christianity – you’ll find countries which are more secular are much more humanitarian in their approaches to punishment, and they put a big focus on rehabilitation, and don’t treat prisoners worse than animals. Those things will never happen here until the States is basically secular, which I don’t see happening in my lifetime.

  2. komarov says

    I think you left out the US practice of privatising prisons, where the main objective seems to be making money. Normally I wouldn’t consider it a possible motivation either, but the US seem so proud of their overt capitalism where making money is the reason, motivation and cause for damn near everything. Why the war on drugs, crappy laws and worse enforcement? To funnel people into prisons – to make money.

    Maybe one day some private prison company accountant will run the numbers on death penalty vs. life imprisonment. Then their superiors will quietly spread the word to the lawmakers of negotiable affection* and laws will be passed. First one state, then another, soon all of them. What the laws say depends on the numbers: perhaps executions can / should be carried out preferably at ‘cost-saving’ commercial facilities, or perhaps the death penalty will finally disappear altogether, just not for the reasons its opponents cite.

    *This Discworld euphemism was the nicest of putting it I could think of.

  3. John Morales says

    Having read about some of those executions, I think a firing squad would be less inhumane.

    Re deterrence, it seems to me the tenor has been that it either works or it doesn’t. And surely it must work at least a little bit — it certainly would deter me to some degree.

    As I understand it, research tends to show that risk of apprehension is more of a crime deterrent than severity of punishment.

    Thing about punishment, once one is subject to the gravest punishment, whence its ongoing deterrence?
    But the risk remains ongoing.

    (“might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb”)

  4. brucegee1962 says

    If the death penalty was a deterrent, then the murder rates in states and countries that have it ought to be measurably lower than in states that don’t — I don’t believe that’s the case.

    I will say that, in the abstract, I do believe that a state should have the right to take the life of one of its citizens who has transcribed the laws too grossly — IF THE STATE WAS CAPABLE OF DOING SO COMPLETELY JUSTLY. Since no state has ever come anywhere close to showing it was able to do so, I am against the death penalty.

  5. John Morales says

    brucegee1962,

    If the death penalty was a deterrent, then the murder rates in states and countries that have it ought to be measurably lower than in states that don’t — I don’t believe that’s the case.

    That’s more of a supposition than an inference.
    What if they do deter, and without them the rate would otherwise be higher?

  6. John Morales says

    Worth noting that in every State with a death penalty, every citizen could in principle be wrongly accused or wrongly convicted and be subject to it.

    Why live in such a State unless one can’t afford to move somewhere safer?
    Well… perhaps because the risk of that circumstance arising is minute — so, even though the consequence is ultimate, one doesn’t think it will happen to them.

  7. Brian English says

    What if they do deter, and without them the rate would otherwise be higher?

    I think brucegee1962 comment was ceteris paribus.

    I guess it’s how closely you judge differing countries, with differing cultures and histories to be par. The US is quite different to Australia, even if we’re both the results of European colonialism and both have left the first peoples destitute and marginalised and think we’re just peachy.

    Digressing, I’m not sure when people compare how banning high-powerful and automatic guns in Australia is useful to the US situation. I think Canada has quite a high gun density per capita, and doesn’t have proportional gun troubles as the US, so would be more comparable. Why are Canucs so nice compared to the USians? ;)
    I’m not sure how you’d compare death penalty. Force Canada to reinstate it (I presume Canada had it a one time or another, even if only as a colony), and see if its crime rate drops? The problems of ethics and human experimentation hey?

  8. John Morales says

    Brian, I did take t so, but note I wrote in the context of the USA — so its States, not external ones.

  9. Brian English says

    Fair enough. I was thinking nation-States. But as brucegee1962 used states and countries, that was a poor interpretation on my part. My bad.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    The question is always what is too nonconformist, and how do you prevent the majority from inflicting their opinion on a minority.

    The question for me is this: how do you guarantee, not beyond reasonable doubt but beyond ANY doubt, that you will never, ever execute an innocent person?

    It’s a fact that the majority in the UK would vote to bring back the death penalty. Our EU referendum last year demonstrated (if we needed to) that more than half the population are dumb as shit. I favour holding a referendum on the death penalty, with two questions on the ballot paper:
    1. Do you favour the availability to the judiciary of capital punishment for serious crimes? YES/NO.
    2. Given that it is inevitable that, sooner or later, under ANY conceivable system of justice, than an innocent person will be convicted of a crime punishable by death, do you, personally, volunteer to be the first innocent person executed? YES/NO.

    Anyone voting “Yes” to the first but “No” to the second doesn’t get their vote counted, because what they mean is “I agree with the death penalty, but only if it exclusively applies to other people”. You don’t get to make that choice. All the people who voted “Yes” to both are rounded up and gassed, and we rerun the vote, happy in the knowledge that the national IQ has jumped a couple of dozen points.

  11. Johnny Vector says

    Strangely, I am somewhat sympathetic. When I think of people like the Mississippi lawmakers, I understand the desire to stomp someone into a mess, to scare their kind into behaving. I really do.

    Going all Bruce Cockburn on us, eh?

    Agreed, 100%.
    Carry on.

  12. jrkrideau says

    Why are Canucs so nice compared to the USians?

    Maple syrup?
    Plus there are a lot of other cultural differences.
    Our gun density quite high for most OECD countries but it is is nowhere near that of the USA and we don’t have a gun culture in the same way the USA does. Anyone seen carrying a gun of any type (well police excepted ) in a town or city would be meeting the Tactical Squad in moments.

    We have quite strict licencing and gun storage requirements. Getting a licence for a handgun is a very arduous process and you can only use it on a gun range. My guess is that about 99+% of legal guns in Canada are long guns.

    Plus there are a lot of other cultural differences.

    Canada had the death penalty until, I think, 1964. See http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/with-canadas-murder-rate-the-lowest-since-1966-are-we-simply-becoming-more-civilized-again for a quick graphic.

    There does not seem to be any deterrent effect from a death penalty if we look at the graph. The increase and decline in the homicide rate seems to be related to other social variables, including age of the population and drug use.

  13. says

    Caine@#1:
    So many things right and true in your comment, I just want to cheer.

    A death penalty has never been shown to be a deterrent. If it was, you wouldn’t have so many people sitting on death row across the country.

    Bingo!
    Of course, it’s not just that it’s not effective as a deterrent: rich people are disproportionately under-represented on death row. I’m sure it’s a statistical fluke.

    Christianity is, in large part, based on vengeance.

    In fact, it’s not just the vengeance aspect of christianity that’s embodied in the punitive system: the idea that someone can “redeem themselves” and “reform” is christianity-based. You know: you repent and show remorse and society spanks you and then you’re a new person again! All sins are wiped away by a little time in the penitentiary. Even the term “penitentiary” hearkens to the christian notion of “penance” – and our judicial system, with its lawyered-up plea-bargains and different outcomes for the rich, is amazingly reminiscent of renaissance sales of papal indulgences. “Oooooh, Jeffrey Skilling endowed a new chapel to St Waggawagga, let’s let him out.” Oh, by the way, Skilling just had a bunch of time knocked off his sentence for good behavior and because he was over-sentenced by the angry people in Texas. Federal judges decided Skilling’s penance is complete, in other words.

    The whole system of penance is weird. A few years ago a fellow broke into my studio and stole $10,000+ worth of camera and lighting gear. Since 2009 I occasionally get a “restitution” check from him, via the state of Pennsylvania, to the tune of $29 every so often. This is the christian notion of redemption and restitution by third party, in action: because he is doing enough to make Pennsylvania happy with him, Pennsylvania forgives him his crime, on my behalf. It’s a bummer because I’m not a great big jesus-shaped wad of forgiveness. I’d rather expiate his crime personally; give me my goddamn camera (that I bought to use when I retire) back or I’ll break bones until you do. Pennsylvania, get out of my way.

    Back to christianity – you’ll find countries which are more secular are much more humanitarian in their approaches to punishment, and they put a big focus on rehabilitation, and don’t treat prisoners worse than animals. Those things will never happen here until the States is basically secular, which I don’t see happening in my lifetime.

    Saudi Arabia will be secular before the US is. Because Saudi’s obviously got an “issue” with the degree to which religion controls it, whereas the US has come up with an amazing layer of denial and bullshit, that allows it to think it’s actually the moral leader of the world – in spite of the faint fecal reek of christian morality pervading the system from the top to the bottom.

  14. says

    Komarov@#2:
    I think you left out the US practice of privatising prisons, where the main objective seems to be making money. Normally I wouldn’t consider it a possible motivation either, but the US seem so proud of their overt capitalism where making money is the reason, motivation and cause for damn near everything. Why the war on drugs, crappy laws and worse enforcement? To funnel people into prisons – to make money.

    Privatization of the prisons is an 80s/90s thing, whereas the war on drugs was a 60s/70s thing, and some of the architects of the war on drugs have come clean about the racist motivation behind parts of it.
    http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-richard-nixon-drug-war-blacks-hippie/

    “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

  15. says

    John Morales@#3:
    Having read about some of those executions, I think a firing squad would be less inhumane.

    Indeed.

    I have often thought about painless deaths; it seems that a most painless death would be a whacking great dose of phenobarbitol or morphine, and a bit of Jack Daniels. The government certainly has plenty of those – but they want the killing cocktail to be unpleasant. Not as unpleasant as possible, but damn near.

    I wrote a whole piece about this that was published on the Fabius Maximus site, when Oklahoma botched that one lethal injection killing. It appears that the disassociative painkiller wore off and the subject regained consciousness while still paralyzed by pancuronium bromide, then got to experience his artificially triggered heart attack from the potassium chloride that stopped his heart. It is possible that the state accidentally or deliberately gave him the worst imaginable ride into hell, conscious but unable to move, the entire time.

    The other way to die painlessly would be, by definition, high explosive. Since the shockwave disassembles you faster than the nerve signals can travel, you could not possibly experience any of what happened. It’d be merciful but messy as hell; I’m surprised the prison authorities haven’t hit upon “death by hand grenade” yet. It would be much more horrible than a firing squad but it would hurt less.

    As I understand it, research tends to show that risk of apprehension is more of a crime deterrent than severity of punishment.
    Thing about punishment, once one is subject to the gravest punishment, whence its ongoing deterrence?

    I believe your understanding is correct. I recall hearing about someone treating cheating in self-service swedish grocery stores as a study, and they discovered that random enforcement and time spent wasted having one’s purchases thoroughly audited had a greater effect on increasing honesty than increasing the amount of a fine.

  16. says

    brucegee1962@#4:
    I will say that, in the abstract, I do believe that a state should have the right to take the life of one of its citizens who has transcribed the laws too grossly — IF THE STATE WAS CAPABLE OF DOING SO COMPLETELY JUSTLY. Since no state has ever come anywhere close to showing it was able to do so, I am against the death penalty.

    The problem is that the premise of the state is that it’s an emergent property of the citizens of the state – which means that in the event the state chooses to kill one of its citizens it is, by definition, violating the social contract. Unless one argues that the social contract includes “I agree that the state I am part of can kill me” – an agreement that the criminal repudiates the second they commit a capital crime.

    I agree with you; I think that by definition, the state cannot kill a member of itself fairly, therefore capital punishment is always a mortal crime being committed by the state against the citizen.

    The only way I could countenance capital punishment in an ostensible democracy would be if everyone voted for it, including the person who was to be executed.

  17. says

    sonofrojblake@#10:
    The question for me is this: how do you guarantee, not beyond reasonable doubt but beyond ANY doubt, that you will never, ever execute an innocent person?

    Interesting you mentioned that. Whenever the topic of capital punishment comes up, someone usually raises the issue (this is not a complaint or criticism directed at you!) – but some claims are that at least a dozen post-1970’s executions were judicial murder. Prior to 1970, there were, presumably, many cases where some black guy got executed for something they didn’t do, because it was convenient for the police to pin it on someone nobody was going to complain about.

    One case you may wish to look at is Cameron Willingham: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cameron_Todd_Willingham] who was put to death for arson based on, apparently flawed forensic analysis. If that’s the case, he was murdered by the government after the accidental death by fire of his three children. That would make it a double tragedy. That Texas chose to sort of sweep the whole case under the rug after murdering him, makes the state of Texas culpable, or at least those who represented the state of Texas during the shameful affair. Worse, there is indication that representatives of the state of Texas knew about and concealed the weakness of the evidence.

    That’s just one example. There are others that are as bad (and often reek of racism) So don’t let someone say “you will never, ever execute an innocent person” because that’s happened at least once and probably more like a dozen or more times.

  18. says

    Johnny Vector@#11:
    Going all Bruce Cockburn on us, eh?

    I had not heard that song before. I am now a fan. Thanks for sharing that.

    And, yes, I approve of his sentiments.

  19. Brian English says

    We have quite strict licencing and gun storage requirements. Getting a licence for a handgun is a very arduous process and you can only use it on a gun range. My guess is that about 99+% of legal guns in Canada are long guns.

    Sounds like Oz then. I can get long arms. Single-shot. But I have to have an approved storage setup, keep ammo separate from the weapon, timer on the storage I think. All which seems sensible to me. I’d only get a long arm to kill feral animals, as such, I’d have no need to hastily get the weapon loaded. I’m such a uncoordinated person, that if I were to use it for self-defence, the only safe person would be the attacker.
    Hand guns are pretty similar. They have to be kept at a licenced gun club/range and only used there. Unless you’re a collector of antique firearms and then you can kept the permanently ‘broken’ version. No ability to fire.

  20. Brian English says

    Oh yeah, and I have to apply to the police for a license and be deemed to be a the right sort of person with the right sort of reason to own a gun.

  21. Johnny Vector says

    Yeah, if the state really wanted to make execution painless, do it by asphyxiation. Anyone who’s taken an Oxygen Deficiency Hazard course knows that when the oxygen level gets too low, the result is you pass out without warning, and if not rescued you die before ever regaining consciousness. Put someone in a room and pipe in pure nitrogen. They’ll never know anything is happening. They could even be sitting in a comfy chair, watching a movie. Although really, the whole concept of “humane killing” is something that would take a George Carlin to explain.

    On the brighter side, glad you liked the Cockburn. I prefer that power trio version to the studio recording on Stealing Fire. That whole album is sort of overproduced, if you ask me. Also, rumor has it that Eddie Van Halen once said, when asked how it feels to be the greatest guitarist in the world, “I don’t know, ask Bruce Cockburn”.

  22. jrkrideau says

    @ 19 & 20
    Multiple shot mags allowed (3 for shotgun, maybe 5 for rifle?) Guns including handguns may be kept at home with trigger guards and secure storage.

    Getting a long-gun licence is ‘fairly’ easy, not sure if there is a police check but likely a quick one. Handgun —I hope you have a few months from what I hear. Safety course(s) required in any case

    Long guns are fairly common here as we have quite a bit of recreation and subsistence hunting. A one-tonne moose or a 200kg deer can make a nice dent in the grocery bill.

    Guns also can be handy for dealing with varmints and the occasional dangerous animal. We have a few big enough and hungry enough in some of the rural areas that sometimes a rifle is a useful tool.

    I suspect we are about a third of the way from OZ to the USA in our dealings with guns

  23. says

    Johnny Vector@#21:
    Also, rumor has it that Eddie Van Halen once said, when asked how it feels to be the greatest guitarist in the world, “I don’t know, ask Bruce Cockburn”.

    I heard the same story, except it was Eric Clapton saying it about Prince.
    Given that Prince was black and Clapton has a history of racist outbursts, I probably don’t buy it.

    Besides, given Clapton’s era and background, he’d have probably said “Jimmy” or “Jimi”

  24. John Morales says

    Marcus @15,

    I wrote a whole piece about this that was published on the Fabius Maximus site, when Oklahoma botched that one lethal injection killing.

    Good post that, good comments. Still topical.

  25. sonofrojblake says

    @Marcus Ranum, 17: The UK has a stack of cases. Two of the ones that got the death penalty outlawed here were Timothy Evans, who confessed to killing his wife when in fact (as was shown after his execution) his serial killer landlord had done it, and Derek Bentley, who was hanged for the shooting of a policeman despite never having touched the gun and already being under arrest and in the control of another officer when the trigger was pulled. It’s not coincidental that neither of those men was of normal adult mental faculty.

    Later, we had a whole bunch of people, mostly Irish, who spent long periods in prison and who would definitely have been hanged if the punishment were available. Google the phrase “appalling vista” for the opinion of one of the UK’s most senior legal minds on the case of the Birmingham Six – innocents who lost decades to the penal system. The most egregious example for me, though, was that of Stefan Kisko, who definitely would have been killed for the rape and murder of Leslie Moleseed had the punishment been available. Another mentally handicapped man (pattern forming…), he confessed because he thought if he did they’d let him go home. I can have no respect for anyone who, knowing the details of these cases, still has anything positive to say about capital punishment.

  26. Dunc says

    Worse, there is indication that representatives of the state of Texas knew about and concealed the weakness of the evidence.

    You know the old aphorism about how it is not enough that justice be done, but that it must be seen to be done? Well, it turns out that as long as justice is seen to be done, nobody much cares whether it really is done or not, and you can save a whole lot of time and trouble if you’re not too bothered about that aspect.

  27. jrkrideau says

    @25 sonofrojblake
    My old house-mate when we were in Saudi Arabia used to talk about “Innocent until proven Irish”. Seems vaguely similar to: “Innocent until proven Black”.

  28. sonofrojblake says

    A trivial aside: I literally just realised that both Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley have been portrayed on film by actors who later played The Doctor, and that the one later regenerated into the other.

    The 1971 movie “10 Rillington Place” starred John Hurt as Evans. The 1991 movie “Let Him Have It” starred Christopher Eccleston as Bentley. In the 50th anniversary episode of “Doctor Who”, John Hurt portrayed the War Doctor, who (spoilers) regenerates at the end into the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston.

  29. says

    sonofrojblake@#28:
    I am embarrassed to admit that I never “got” Doctor Who. I watched a few episodes (the one with the statues that moved) and thought they were pretty clever, but, eh. I did get hooked on Red Dwarf for a while, but I got better.

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