The Common Good
April 2007

Resisting the Death Spiral

by Howard Zehr | April 2007

Capital punishment is about vengeance, not justice.

Resisting the Death Spiral: Capital punishment is about vengeance, not justice.

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I was sitting with a group of men in prison, in a seminar I had been leading for some weeks. Most were serving life sentences and had been in for many years. One young man, however, expected to be released soon.

We got to talking about justice. "When we were outside," the older men said, "if someone dissed us, wronged us, we had to fight but we didn't have to win. Otherwise, we wouldn't be a man."

"You're out of touch," said the younger man. "If someone disses me, I have to waste them—I have to kill them." His classmates—all of whom had been convicted of taking a life—were appalled.

The death penalty fuels the very phenomenon it claims to suppress. Taking a life—whether on the streets or in the courtroom—is driven by the same motive: to do "justice." Both are part of the same cycle of violence. This cycle of violence is what Jesus was trying to break when he preached against vengeance, even when someone is clearly wronged, as Jesus was when put to death. This is not just mushy idealism or preachy Christianity. Actually, the lesson Jesus taught is supported by current experience.

Researchers have been unable to find a credible correlation between the death penalty and reduced homicide rates; in Canada, for example, homicide rates were lower after the death penalty was abolished. Some commentators and researchers have noted a tendency for murders to actually increase in a particular locale after an execution occurs there.

Why? Perhaps it is linked to an observation made by Dr. James Gilligan, chief psychiatrist for the Massachusetts prison system for more than a decade: "All violence is an effort to do justice, or to undo injustice." In my experience, Gilligan's observation rings true—whether it is ordinary street crime or terrorism. Violence reflects a tit-for-tat worldview, with people giving to other people what they "deserve."

Gilligan offers a possible explanation for why the death penalty may make the murder rate go up. The death penalty mirrors the violence that it aims to reduce, reinforcing the idea that people should get what they deserve—suffering for suffering. Rather than undermining a tit-for-tat worldview—as Jesus tried to do—it confirms it. Rather than slowing the cycle, it feeds it.

THE HOPE OF reducing crime is based on the assumption that the example of execution will deter other would-be offenders. Ironically, however, offenders tend not to identify with the person being punished. Instead they identify with the punisher. They too want to be punishers, meting out justice.

Giving people what they deserve—death for death—thus does not make rational or empirical sense. But it does make emotional and intuitive sense. In working with victims of crimes, I have come to some understanding of why they wish the one who hurt or killed their loved one to suffer. Unlike Jesus, who said "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do," I too feel the urge for vengeance sometimes. But I try to resist the urge to act on this feeling, as I believe our society should similarly resist it.

I don't discount the need for victims to "balance the score." It reflects the human need for reciprocity. Yet there are other, more life-giving ways to achieve this sense of justice. In fact, we must do much more to meet the needs of victims in the justice process. If we do so, I believe we will lessen the understandable urge for revenge.

Crime victims and their families, as well as society at large, need validation and vindication after murder or other violent crimes. The death penalty, however, is not the way to accomplish this. It is a confirmation of the code of honor my prisoner friend described, and confirms that justice is about reciprocating harm. Unfortunately, we can expect this cycle to be repeated—on the streets of America as well as in the rest of the world.

Howard Zehr, author of The Little Book of Restorative Justice and Transcending: Reflections of Crime Victims (Good Books), is co-director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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