- - Sunday, July 29, 2018


Capital punishment continues to be a hot-button issue nearly everywhere. Several public-opinion polls indicate that state-sanctioned killing is not as popular in America as it once was. Two decades ago polls showed that 80 percent of Americans approved of taking a life for a life, though some approved reluctantly. Now approval is down to a considerably smaller majority. There’s a spirited movement of conservatives to abolish the death penalty altogether.

The European Union has been trying to persuade its members to follow the example of Canada, Australia and New Zealand to abolish it, too.

Asian nations, however, like several of the American states, are holding fast to their ropes, guns and needles as weapons to punish evil-doers. Singapore, where decorum is prized and chewing gum in public is punished by a stiff paddling, employs the death penalty to punish greater crimes. The Republic of China on Taiwan enforces the death penalty without apology. South Korea uses the death penalty but with a bit of an apology; it has declared a moratorium on the penalty for further study. Japan continues to execute with the rope, with more than a hundred prisoners now waiting to mount the gallows.

Japan recently put to death the 13 members of a weird cult, including its leader, responsible for the 1995 terror attack on the Tokyo subway, which killed 13 people and injured thousands. The atrocity was committed with sarin gas, which followed another attack by the group called Aum Shinrikyo a year earlier. The grisly subway attack was described by the London Review of Books as terrifying in its simplicity. “The Tokyo gas attackers settled on a simple delivery system. The gas is volatile. They packaged their product in a plastic bag, wrapped it in newspaper, put it at the exit to a subway carriage, and when the carriage came to a stop, stabbed the bag with the inevitable umbrella, and ran out to a waiting car or taxi. Three [subway] lines were almost simultaneously attacked in this way.”

Japan is peaceful, prosperous, homogenous, safe and almost free of street crime. Even litter is rare. Tourists have lost their wallets on the Tokyo subway only to find them later at the lost and found, money and credit cards still there. The sarin attack astonished and shocked the Japanese. “The indiscriminate murders by Aum, in particular those in the Tokyo subway attack,” the Japan Times observed, “deeply shocked the nation and are still remembered as key events that damaged a long-held sense of security felt by many in postwar Japan.”

Aum Shinrikyo is, or was, a deeply odd cult — apocalyptic, and led by a charismatic blind acupuncturist. Its beliefs, such as they were, combined distorted elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. It attracted high achievers. The cult had attracted many young people, including many who were highly educated at top-level universities, and in fact, it was because it attracted accomplished graduates that it was able to produce the sarin gas used in the subway attack.

Public support remains strong for the ultimate penalty as reckoned by the most recent polls. Fifty years after Britain performed its last execution, a plurality of Britons continue to support the death penalty. The French approve death for capital crimes by an outright majority of 53 percent.

For many, the death penalty satisfies a primordial sense of revenge. “You kill, you die.” But revenge is not necessarily justice, and taking a life to punish taking a life is an idea whose time may be fading. Capital punishment has been upheld consistently by the U.S. Supreme Court despite the prohibition in the Constitution of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The state tries, in a fashion, to make the death painless, but in several recent cases did not succeed. The Arizona executioners of Joseph Rudolph Wood so botched the job over two hours that his lawyers had time to file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in mid-execution. Ohio used an untested cocktail of drugs to kill one Dennis McGuire and he writhed and screamed for 25 minutes until he died. Oklahoma tried for an hour to execute Clayton Lockett, a murderer and rapist, as he lay convulsing on a gurney. He cheated the state by dying of a heart attack.

A new study by an organization called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty supplies an economic argument against the death penalty. It costs the state more to execute a felon than to keep him in prison for life, and this fact might trump morality in some states.

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