God damn it.

It’s happened again: I am now stuck with pointing out that a ghastly shell of a human being ought to have his life spared, even though he’s a lying, murderous sociopath, and even though he’s obviously guilty as hell. God damn it.

There have been less-publicized cases over the years where I’ve been in the same position, but the last time it was really this hard a slog was back when Timothy McVeigh was sent to the slaughter-house in June 2001. Oh well; here we go again.

It is clear from the evidence, at least as far as I am aware of it, that Scott Peterson is a sucking abyss where a human being should be; that he is a lying, cheating, manipulating, violent sociopath with a petulant sense of entitlement, and that he mercilessly murdered his wife. It is a good thing that he was found guilty and a good thing that he will spend many years in prison. But none of that matters when the question is whether or not he should be killed. Virtuous or vicious, penitant or unrepentant, guilty or innocent, he does not deserve to be killed. Whether he deserves to live or not is not a question I’d ever presume to have the answer to, but nobody deserves to have their rights violated. Not even Scott Peterson.

The death penalty is State-sanctioned murder. Why? Because you are sending someone to death row, and after years of premeditation, deliberately killing him–whether you burn him alive, behead him, impale him, or engage in more civilized forms of slaughter such as the gas chamber, intravenous poisoning, or electrocution. The end result is the same: another human being is dead, at the hand of the executioner (and the ruling gang that put him up to it), with no plea of self-defense and with malice aforethought.

It’s not that I think you don’t have the right to use violence, up to and including lethal force, to save yourself or others from someone who threatens your life. You do. If Laci had been able to shoot Scott Peterson in the head, I wouldn’t shed one tear or complain one bit. But the death penalty is not self-defense. Scott Peterson is a vicious wretch, and it is horrible what he did, but he is now a harmless vicious wretch: he poses a threat to no-one from a prison cell, and doing more violence to him will not undo any of the horrible things that he’s done.

You might say that condemning Scott Peterson to death is violence in self-defense, but in an indirect way–by killing Scott, you might deter other would-be murderers in the future. But whether the empirical claim is true or not, it’s irrelevant to the moral issue: as disgusting a human being as Scott Peterson is, and as much right as we have to keep him in prison for the rest of his life, his body is still not a post-it note; we have no right to do more violence to him than would otherwise be justified just so that we can send a message to some vaguely specified group of people.

You might say that slaughtering him doesn’t need to have anything in particular to do with self-defense; that it is legitimate to do so because he deserves to be punished for his horrible crimes. Maybe he does; but even if he does, none of us has any right to give him what he deserves. Blood vengeance is not a basis for law, and it’s not a justification for the use of force.

You might think that I am dealing with complex positions in a brief and dismissive way. Probably so; but there are good reasons to be dismissive: the arguments have monstrous consequences that very few people are willing to accept. If you think the deterrance argument or the punishment argument can justify killing Scott Peterson, then what principled reason would there be to deny that it would also justify mutilation or public torture? If execution deters potential criminals then no doubt public torture does to; and if his crimes give us the right to make him suffer even without any defensive purpose, then beating him or branding him or slowly flaying off his skin would certainly do the trick. You might say that these are far more barbaric than killing him humanely; but that is a bunch of sentimentalized nonsense. Torture is horrible, but being killed is worse; any argument that justifies killing Scott Peterson with premeditation and with no defensive purpose can, a fortiori, justify anything that you could care to do to him, since nothing can harm him as much as death.

Almost no-one seriously thinks that it would be right to torture murderers. Most people would find it barbaric, and most people would consider it a violation of the torture victim’s human rights. No matter how horrible a person that torture victim is. No matter what punishment they might deserve or what deterrance effect it might have. But if you think that, then you are logically committed to saying that it’s wrong to condemn murderers to death, too. Modus tollens is a tough cookie.

Scott Peterson is in a prison cell that he richly deserves to stay in for the rest of his life, and that we have every right to keep him in. I am glad that the dickhead is there; let him rot. There is no excuse to make this sociopath a victim of our own bloody-minded injustice. But nothing can justify executing him, or anyone else; the death penalty must be ended–here, now, before one more person dies. Anything else is murder–murder that the State claims to be committing in our names.

Further reading:

  • GT 2002/06/24: Wallace Fugate is guilty as hell: Opponents of the death penalty all too often put themselves in the position of mounting dishonest campaigns protesting the innocence of someone or another on death row. In Wallace Fugate’s case, the tactics are particularly slimy, since they are fudging facts and making misogynistic excuses for a violent, controlling batterer who clearly murdered his ex-wife. Arguments like these simply bypass the point: Wallace Fugate is guilty as hell, but that offers no excuse for executing him. The death penalty is indefensible whether he is innocent or guilty.

  • Political Programme FAQ: Death penalty

13 replies to God damn it. Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Otto Kerner

    Isn’t locking someone up in a prison also a monstrous thing to do, if someone less so that killing them? How do we justify that? What if the prison is a dangerous place, as it probably is? Can we justify sending anyone to a modern American prison?

  2. John Lopez

    “We” don’t necessarily have any right to do anything to Peterson. Someone does, but ambiguous-collectives don’t. The government certainly doesn’t have any business taking my money and using it to house and feed Peterson.

    More to the point, I don’t see much difference in the moral argument for imprisonment-for-life than I do with the argument for shooting him. If he’s a “sociopath”, then he’s a threat. If he’s not, then why keep him in a cage?

  3. Rad Geek

    Lopez:

    “We” don’t necessarily have any right to do anything to Peterson. Someone does, but ambiguous-collectives don’t.

    True, but “we” is not being used to attribute rights collectively above. It’s being used to attribute them distributively, to you and I and our neighbors. I have the right to use force to lock Scott Peterson up if necessary, and so do you, because he’s a threat. I don’t think that I have the right to gun him down on the street, and I certainly don’t have the right to lock him up indefinitely and then one day go into his cell and gun him down because I think he “deserves” it.

    The government certainly doesn’t have any business taking my money and using it to house and feed Peterson.

    Sure, but that’s a different issue from whether they have the right to imprison him or not. The government has no right taking my money to build roads or investigate murders, but I have no objection to the fact that roads are built or that murders are investigated. I object to the expropriation of the costs and the violent exclusion of peaceful competition.

    More to the point, I don’t see much difference in the moral argument for imprisonment-for-life than I do with the argument for shooting him. If he’s a “sociopath”, then he’s a threat. If he’s not, then why keep him in a cage?

    I think the evidence clearly shows that he is a threat, but that offers no grounds for killing him unless killing him is the only reasonable way that you can remove the threat. But it’s not. Incarceration involves less violence against Peterson’s person and will do the job as well as killing him will–let alone killing him after years of incarceration on death row. (Remember that among other things, the execution of Scott Peterson is something that will be done in addition to, not instead of, years of incarceration.)

    Kerner:

    Isn’t locking someone up in a prison also a monstrous thing to do, if someone less so that killing them? … Can we justify sending anyone to a modern American prison?

    That depends on the someone and it depends on the prison. Contemporary American prisons are horrifying things and nobody should be sent to places like them. They are hell-holes of institutionalized sadism, both from guards and from fellow prisoners. I think that Foucault is right in Discipline and Punish: the ideology behind the modern “humane” prison is, if anything, more barbaric and more of an assault on human dignity than the ideology behind the ghastly methods of medieval and early modern corporal punishment and execution. (But not the practice; the material conditions suffered in prison are horrible, but not as much of a harm as being killed.) And I fully support efforts to radically change the environment within prisons.

    That doesn’t entail, though, that in the meantime, we should push for everyone, including violent criminals who pose imminent threats to the rest of us, free. Rapists or batterers should not be subjected to the conditions of a modern American prison, but neither should their victims (actual or potential) be subjected to their release. And given the choice between the two, I think it’s clear that supporting incarceration for people who manifestly pose an imminent threat, even under conditions worse than what they should have to suffer, is completely defensible, given that you are also supporting substantial change in those conditions.

    Which I am.

  4. Denise Thomas

    While i despise this man and his actions, i, too am firmly anti-capital punishment. i am not happy about the state killing people in my name, about the possibility of error, nor about the bloodthirsty attitude of the proponents of the death penalty. This isn’t about money, or the old BS about which is “worse” — this is purely a matter of morality in my opinion. It is ridiculous to kill people because they killed someone and thus somehow prove that killing is wrong, yes?

  5. Martin Striz

    Charles, I wonder how, as a person who denies the legitimacy of the State, you sanction the government imprisoning Scott Peterson (or anyone for that matter). What is the anarchist solution to criminal justice?

  6. jp

    Just curious–even if one agrees with you that execution is state-sanctioned murder, you still would have to answer the following question: Why does the state have the right to do anything to Scott Peterson at all?

    And, why is killing him different in kind from putting him in prison for the rest of his life? If the state ‘doesn’t have a right’ to his body, then why does it have the right to incarcerate him at all?

  7. Sameul Haque

    States don’t have rights, but people do so long as they respect the same rights in others. When an individual infringes on other people’s rights, then they give up their own rights and they are then at the mercy of the victim’s of whose rights the violated. In this particular case, that didn’t turn out too well for Mr. Peterson.

  8. John Lopez

    I think the evidence clearly shows that he is a threat, but that offers no grounds for killing him unless killing him is the only reasonable way that you can remove the threat. But it’s not.

    So in a free society, you’d willingly contribute to Peterson’s care and feeding?

  9. Otto Kerner

    Charles, I think you’re response is just about exactly right as far as it goes. The thing is, you seem to be willing to inflict undeserved suffering on criminals for some good cause (keeping them off the streets), which is essentially the same argument made by death penalty proponents (some of them; others just want revenge). So, I take it that your position is that we should deal with criminals in the least egregiously wrong way possible. But is this goal really feasible? What if the most humane way to deal with Scott Peterson were to set him free, but with a security agency hired to keep tabs on him round-the-clock and tase him if he looks to commit more crimes (or some other ludicrously expensive proposal)? Are we required to fund that? And yet, sending someone to prison is, as several other commenters have pointed out, itself extremely expensive. How do you decide what the appropriate level of expense vs. cruelty is?

  10. Rad Geek

    Martin: “I wonder how, as a person who denies the legitimacy of the State, you sanction the government imprisoning Scott Peterson (or anyone for that matter).”

    Well, to begin with, I think that most of the people imprisoned by the State shouldn’t be. Incarceration is completely inappropriate for matters like common theft or fraud, and it’s effectively criminal abduction and assault by the agents of the State in the case of non-crimes such as drug possession or “illegal” immigration.

    That said: the fact that the State as such has no legitimate authority over anyone does not entail that everything done by people with government uniforms on is illegitimate. The question is whether the person with the government hat on would have the right to do what she is doing as an individual. She can’t get the authority to, say, lock up murderous sociopaths from the government, because the government has no authority to confer, but if she already has it as a matter of natural right, then there’s no moral problem in exercising it. (Although there may be strategic problems in relying on it when other options are available. But that’s a whole new can of worms.)

    As it happens, I do think that each of us has the right to lock up murderous sociopaths, given certain standards of restraint and evidence and humane treatment, on the grounds that each of us has the right to use force to defend ourselves or others from an imminent threat of violence. And I think lying, controlling sleazebags who murder their wives do pose an imminent threat.

    “What is the anarchist solution to criminal justice?”

    Well, I don’t think that there is one fixed solution, or that there should be; the cluster of issues that’s lumped under “criminal justice” today is actually a lot of different problems that don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another except that the Crown began taking over the judgment on some of them in the High Middle Ages and then added others under the system that it had created over the course of the next several centuries. It’s not at all clear that the proper response in a free society to, say, murder or domestic violence, is going to be the same as the proper response to burglary or vandalism or littering on other people’s property. And it’s quite certain that none of these solutions is the proper way to address “crimes” such as drug abuse or prostitution or “illegal” immigration.

    It also depends a lot on what sort of anarchist you’re talking to; communist anarchists, syndicalists, individualists, anarcho-capitalists, etc. have, not surprisingly very different views from one another on the matter, and have very different views amongst themselves as well, on questions such as the permissibility of prisons, the legitimacy of punishment as vs. restitution, the proper powers and organizations of courts, the proper powers and organizations of police forces, etc.

    Any kind of reasonable beginning at an attempt would be material for a separate blog post, at least, and would be more appropriate for a largish book. But rather than getting started on that, let’s just say that there are a lot of ways of addressing crimes that are all compatible with a free society: individual self-defense, voluntary neighborhood watches, arbitration with enforcement of restitution, mediation, spreading information about offenders throughout our communities and networks, ostracism and boycott of offenders, nonviolent civil disobedience, insurance against losses (through professional insurers or through mutual aid associations), neighborhood or city-level citizen militias to defend against large-scale assaults, and a lot more, as well as various combinations of the above. Although I am very strongly convinced about some things that will not be acceptable (among them, the death penalty in any context outside of immediate self-defense), I’m actually willing to be fairly agnostic toward what exact combination of methods will be the best way of working things out, and leaving it up to people to work out in the course of building a free society. (One of the advantages of being an anarchist is that you don’t have to have all the answers centrally planned out.)

    I know that’s not even near to answering your questions, but I hope it helps start things out. If you want a reading list of some of the anarchist literature on crime and individual and mutual self-defense, drop me a line and I’ll try to grab some titles for you.

  11. Sheelzebub

    “I fully support efforts to radically change the environment within prisons.

    That doesn’t entail, though, that in the meantime, we should push for everyone, including violent criminals who pose imminent threats to the rest of us, free. Rapists or batterers should not be subjected to the conditions of a modern American prison, but neither should their victims (actual or potential) be subjected to their release.”

    Yep.

    I don’t agree with capital punishment mainly because there’s always a chance that someone could be innocent.

    I also have no problem with contributing to a sociopath’s care and feeding in prison–I would just want to make sure that the Timothy McVieghs and Ted Bundys of the world stay in prison.

  12. Rad Geek

    Lopez: “So in a free society, you’d willingly contribute to Peterson’s care and feeding?”

    Depends on the sort of incarceration that ended up coming about in a free society. I don’t have any problem in principle paying voluntarily for the upkeep of prisons to hold the Scott Petersons of the world, and if that involves the cost of care and feeding, well, O.K., that’s better than nothing. But there’s no reason in principle why criminals could not be incarcerated in, say, islands where they can practice Crusoe-Friday economics (and solicit charity by mail as they see fit) to keep themselves up, or in places where they can otherwise work for their own upkeep. (N.B.: this is not the same thing as endorsing the current “prison labor” system, which is simply State-sponsored slave labor, and which offers prisoners no real choices about whether to work or not, or for whom to work.)

    Either way, this doesn’t have anything in particular to do with whether or not Peterson should be executed. The death penalty is not an alternative to imprisonment, it’s something that is done after years of imprisonment. (And no, immediate execution after sentencing is not an acceptable alternative for a free society.)

— 2007 —

  1. Lance Landall

    Hi, Just been reading through your comments and wondered if you might like to take a look at my poem called ‘The Death Penalty’. My web address is http://www.poetrywithamission.co.nz Regards, Lance Landall

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