Capital Punishment (43): Some Facts About Decapitation

It used to be a common practice, but today only a handful of countries still execute criminals by way of beheading (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and perhaps one or two other countries).

Assuming that decapitation occurs in a “civilized” way and that it doesn’t take a number of blows or cuts to the neck in order to sever the head from the body – which, in practice, is not always a correct assumption: does the brain remain conscious for a few seconds after a clean and quick decapitation? There are many historical reports of decapitated heads showing facial movements or even the attempt to speak right after decapitation. It’s not clear what to make of this, since facial movements can just as well be spasms.

However, experiments with rats have shown brain activity after decapitation. Sure, there’s no way to be sure that this is true for the human brain as well – since “further scientific observation of human decapitation is unlikely”, in the words of Alan Bellows. Still, the rat experiments are suggestive:

[R]esearchers connected an EEG machine to the brains of rats, decapitated them and recorded the electrical activity in the brain after the event. [They] found that for about four seconds after being separated from the body, the rats’ brains continued to generate electrical activity between the 13 to 100-Hertz frequency band, which is associated with consciousness and cognition, defined as “a mental process that includes thinking”. (source)

The circulatory system delivers oxygen to the brain so that it can carry out its functions. When suddenly deprived of oxygen or blood after a clean and quick decapitation – or after several severe blows to the neck with a knife, sword or axe, before full decapitation – the brain’s function deteriorates rapidly, but perhaps not instantaneously. This would imply that individuals, after suffering a clean and quick decapitation, can still think, perceive, feel and suffer pain and anguish during a few horrible seconds after which the brain, which itself receives no trauma during decapitation, stops functioning because blood loss causes unconsciousness and death.

A related story is here. More on beheadings here. And on capital punishment here.

Capital Punishment (36): Retribution

I understand the argument that people sentenced to death aren’t getting any worse than they’ve given the world. Still, I think that the state could and should be held to a slightly higher standard of behavior than that which we expect from people who are literally deemed worthy of being killed like animals. (source)

More on capital punishment and retribution.

Capital Punishment (33): It’s Not What You Do, But What You Do to Whom

In the U.S., and probably also in other countries that still use the death penalty, not all murders are alike. Ostensibly, the death penalty is the supreme punishment for the supreme crime, i.e. murder. But some cases of the supreme crime are more likely to result in the supreme punishment than others. For example, it’s well-known that a black person who has committed murder is more likely to be executed than a white person, even if the details of their crimes are very much alike.

It seems that the moralistic justification of capital punishment – that the worst of crimes should be met with the severest of punishments – is just talk, applicable in some cases but not in others. This inconsistency is incompatible with moral talk, since morality is precisely about general and blind rules. The inconsistency becomes even more clear when we consider that it’s not just the race of the perpetrator that makes it more or less likely that horror is answered with horror. People who murder whites are much more likely to be executed than those who murder blacks.

I don’t want to sound conspiratory, but it does seem like the death penalty is an instrument in the continued subjugation of blacks and the protection of whites.

On top of the race issue, there’s also a class issue:

A defendant is much more likely to be sentenced to death if he or she kills a “high-status” victim, according to new research by Scott Phillips, associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver (DU).

According to his research published in Law and Society Review, (43-4:807-837), the probability of being sentenced to death is much greater if a defendant kills a white or Hispanic victim who is married with a clean criminal record and a college degree, as opposed to a black or Asian victim who is single with a prior criminal record and no college degree.

“The concept of arbitrariness suggests that the relevant legal facts of a capital case cannot fully explain the outcome: irrelevant social facts also shape the ultimate state sanction” Phillips says. “In the capital of capital punishment, death is more apt to be sought and imposed on behalf of high status victims. Some victims matter more than others.”

Phillips research is based on 504 death penalty cases that occurred in Harris County, Texas between 1992 and 1999. (source, source)

More on capital punishment is here.

Human Rights and International Law (17): License to Kill? The Morality and Legality of Targeted Killings of Terrorists

The Bush administration took the position that killing members of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group that has attacked the United States and stated that its goal is to attack again, is no different than shooting enemy soldiers on the battlefield. The Obama administration, which has continued to fire missiles from Predator drones on suspected Qaeda members in Pakistan, has taken the same view. (source)

Now it seems that the CIA went a step further and developed plans to dispatch small teams overseas to kill senior Qaeda terrorists (Predator strikes can be unreliable and tend to produce “collateral damage”). The plans remained vague and were never carried out, and Leon E. Panetta, the new C.I.A. director, canceled the program last month. Apparently, because it was too difficult to organize and probably also because no one has a clue where the terrorists really are.

In 1976, after the disclosure of C.I.A. assassination plots against Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Fidel Castro in Cuba and other foreign politicians, President Gerald R. Ford issued an executive order banning assassinations. This ban, however, does not apply to the killing of enemies in a war (obviously, because that would make war impossible). Hence the utility of branding the fight against terrorists a “War on terror”. Convincing the world that you are “at war” with the terrorists, turns them into “simple soldiers” who can be killed at will, like all soldiers in a war (except when it comes to the Geneva conventions, they’re soldiers no more…).

My personal views on targeted killing are here. According to me, whether there’s a war going on or not, targeted killings are morally justified only in certain very specific circumstances. When there is an imminent threat and no other means to stop an attack from happening, targeted killings are justified, whether or not we are “officially” at war. That would not only be morally justified, but also a legal act of self-defense under national and international law (see here for instance). The sovereignty of the country where the killing occurs shouldn’t be an obstacle.

Counterterrorism, in civil democratic regimes, must be rooted in the rule of law, morality in armed conflict, and an analysis of policy effectiveness. Targeted killings are indeed legal, under certain conditions. The decision to use targeted killing of terrorists is based on an expansive articulation of the concept of pre-emptive self defense. … According to Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, a nation state can respond to an armed attack. Targeted killing, however, is somewhat different because the state acts before the attack occurs. In addition to self-defense principles, the four critical principles of international law – alternatives, military necessity, proportionality, and collateral damage – are critical to the decision-maker’s analysis. … Implementing [these] four international law principles … requires the commander to ascertain that the “hit” is essential to national security and therefore proportional to the risk the individual presents. Furthermore, the commander must determine that any alternatives, such as capturing and detaining the individual, are not operationally possible. The commander must also seek to minimize the collateral damage – harm to innocent civilians – that is all but inevitable in such attacks. Amos N. Guiora (source)

And of course the threat must be imminent.

What is not acceptable is targeted killing without any imminent threat, or in circumstances which allow for other types of “disablement”. And neither is targeted killing as a kind of popular and photogenic “poetic justice”, because that is justice without due process. And when we have the chance to apply due process, why not show the world that we don’t just destroy criminals, even less suspected criminals or potential criminals? Extrajudicial executions aren’t OK simply because the targets are more blameworthy than opposition figures in Latin-American dictatorships. It’s not because everyone hates Osama bin Laden that we can simply kill him at will.

Capital Punishment (17): What With Rehabilitation?

As I live – declares the Lord Yahweh – I do not take pleasure in the death of the wicked but in the conversion of the wicked who changes his ways and saves his life. Ezekiel 33:11 (source)

I have been prey to the deepest anxiety for fear your Highness might perhaps decree that they [the murderers of a Catholic priest] be sentenced to the utmost penalty of law, by suffering a punishment in proportion to their deeds. Therefore, in this letter, I beg you by the faith which you have in Christ and by the mercy of the same Lord Chirst, not to do this, not to let it be done under any circumstances. … we do not wish that the martyrdom of the servants of God should be avenged by similar suffering, as if by way of retaliation. … We do not object to wicked men being deprived of their freedom to do wrong, but we wish it to go just that far, so that, without losing their life or being maimed in any part of their body, they may be restrained by the law from their mad frenzy, guided into the way of peace and sanity, and assigned to some useful work to replace their criminal activities. It is true, this is called a penalty, who can fail to see that it should be called a benefit rather than a chastisement when violence and cruelty are held in check, but the remedy of repentance is not withheld? Augustine (source)

We know enough to say that this or that major criminal deserves hard labor for life. But we don’t know enough to decree that he be shorn of his future – in other words, of the chance we all have of making amends. Albert Camus (source)

Execution obviously removes any possibility of rehabilitation; rehabilitation both in the sense of restoring someone to the family of humanity after repentance and forgiveness, and in the sense of exoneration, of the undoing of a miscarriage of justice.

Capital Punishment (16): The Lesser Evil Argument for Capital Punishment

Let’s assume, arguendo, that capital punishment has a deterrent effect. (I stated here that this is far from obvious). It’s important for proponents of capital punishment that this effect exists, because other justifications for capital punishment are no longer widely accepted (e.g. justifications like, for example, those based on the conviction that murderers somehow deserve to be killed).

My point here is that, even if we assume that deterrence works and reduces the overall number of killings (and we shouldn’t assume this), it doesn’t justify capital punishment. I will argue this on the basis of one of my previous posts and on elements of this paper.

The expression “deterrence works” means that there are fewer overall killings in a society with capital punishment than there would have been without capital punishment. In other words, capital punishment deters more killings than it inflicts. The taking of a life by the state reduces the number of lives taken overall. This is what is called a “lesser evil argument”. Proponents of this kind of justification of capital punishment do not believe that executions are a good thing, or a moral thing to do. Executions take people’s lives, and are evil, but they are a lesser evil than not engaging in executions, because failing to execute would mean failing to deter more murders than the murders we commit by executing killers. If an execution saves more than one life (and there are studies claiming that every execution saves around 18 lives), than it is morally required. It may be immoral and evil, but less so than the failure to execute because it leads to a net gain in terms of numbers of lives saved compared to the failure to execute.

This lesser evil argument is what is called a consequentialist moral argument. Consequentialism is opposed to deontology. The latter states that some acts are intrinsically wrong and can’t be justified by the value of their beneficial consequences. Consequentialism, as the name suggests, claims that beneficial ends justify the means. Of course, neither position is ever defended as an absolute. No one, I guess, believes that a more beneficial overall outcome always justifies certain acts. I think it’s hard to find someone who accepts that it’s moral to kill someone if his or her organs can save the lives of two others. Saving two lives at the cost of one is an overall gain, but it seems that sacrificing someone in this manner just isn’t something you can do to a person. On the other hand, absolute deontologists are also a rare species. At some point, negative consequences have to be taken into account and to hell with the principle then.

The deterrence effect is said to justify capital punishment because of consequentialism: the overall result or consequences of capital punishment are better than the alternative, namely failing to inflict capital punishment. Whereas a deontologist would reject capital punishment regardless of the beneficial consequences, a consequentionalist will not. He will admit that executions are no better than private murders, and just as evil, but still acceptable and even morally necessary if it can be shown that they deter more murders than they inflict.

The problem with this argument isn’t so much that it’s based on dubious deterrence statistics, but that it supposes that state murder is the same as private murder, and that a lesser number of the former is acceptable and necessary if they make it possible to deter a higher number of the latter. Of course, state murder is worse than private murder, and, as a result, the consequentialist calculus of the lesser evil argument is corrupted. If a state murder is worse than a private murder, it’s no longer obvious that capital punishment is a lesser evil.

Why is state murder worse than private murder? As I stated in a previous post, capital punishment is the instrumentalization and dehumanization of people. Private murder of course also instrumentalizes and dehumanizes the victims because these victims are used for some kind of gain, but state murder pushes this instrumentalization to the extreme and makes it the norm of behavior, rather than a criminal exception. Individual criminals are used as instruments to advance the collective interest. They are sacrificed for the greater good and a resource for the benefit of others (namely the intended future victims of future murderers). And this is even made worse if we consider that the lesser evil argument seems to justify the execution of innocent people, as long as this deters a higher number of private murders.

When the state instrumentalizes people in this way, it sends a clear message that this is a normal way of treating people, with possibly disastrous consequences.

Capital Punishment (15): The Stupidity of Deterrent Statistics

It’s far from obvious that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. Some of the data even suggest the possibility that instead of a deterrent effect, capital punishment has a brutalization effect (because it sends out the normative message that violent retaliation is the normal response to ill-treatment and that the sanctity of life is a naive moral ideal). States with high numbers of executions tend to have high levels of violent crime and murder.

Anyway, let’s be generous and admit that there may or may not be a deterrent effect. According to me, as long as this question is open, deterrence can’t be used as a justification for capital punishment. Of course, proponents of capital punishment keep looking for the effect because it would be the only widely acceptable justification of this type of punishment. (I argued here that even if the deterrent effect exists, it doesn’t justify the death penalty because deterrence is inherently immoral).

One of the most silly “findings” I’ve ever seen is here. This “study” claims to show that every execution results in 18 fewer murders. However, the authors failed to note that, if this were true, and the U.S. would execute today all the approx. 3.300 inmates on death row, there would be no more murders in the U.S. (there are between 15.000 and 20.000 homicides in the U.S. annually). That can’t possibly be true. A nice study, I have to say.

(Pointed out to me by this paper).