29 September 2006

Death Penalty Insanity

California is re-evaluating their approach to the death penalty. Not whether criminals should be executed, oh no. The focus is on the method. It's just one more example of a mentally bankrupt worldview that values process over results, methods over meaning.

Here's what I heard: On one side, people are arguing (with a straight face), that when California executes people (via lethal injection), it causes "excessive pain," and we really shouldn't do that. On the other side, people (also with a straight face) are responding "No, when we execute people, it is perfectly humane." One guy on the radio actually used the word "safe" in describing the lethal injection methods they use.

Safe? Really? As Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride, "I do not think that word means what you think it means."

I should admit I'm completely against the death penalty, for a variety of reasons which I won't go into here. But I mention this debate because both sides seem completely insane. One side says "It's Ok to kill people, as long as ya don't hurt 'em too much." (US District Judge Fogel says "The question is whether the degree of pain is so severe that it raises constitutional issues under the Eighth Amendment.") The other side says "Don't you worry none - we're just killin' em. We ain't hurtin' em at all."

Does either position make any sense? Let's set aside the question of the morality of the death penalty (as if it hasn't been set aside already, right?)... I'm just talking about internal logical consistency here.

In the end, it seems to me they're arguing over the wrong thing, and this sort of insanity is what you get when Process and Methods become more important than the actual mission or meaning.


Mark said...


Mark said...

Actually, it makes me think that our justice system (sounds like both sides in this case) is against actually punishing anyone. Execution and/or imprisonment seem solely intended to remove the threat to society - and maybe to prevent future crime via undesireable consequences. Inflicting pain, even during an execution, perhaps seems more vengeful than useful in the sense of protecting society at large.

So I guess I can understand the debate to some degree. If California was executing people by slowly starving them or something, wouldn't it be reasonable to debate the means, not just the ends?

Dan said...

Well said, Mark. I agree that executing a prisoner by torture is w-a-y worse than administering an anesthetic overdose. I just get itchy when anyone describes lethal injection as either safe or unacceptably painful. That sort of talk seems to gloss the whole "death of a human being" part of the equation.

I agree, of course, that means matter. The thing is, there doesn't seem to be much debate about the ends, at least not in California at this time.

I would love to see more discussion about the purpose of the death penalty - is it really a deterrant? (the jury's still out on that one) Is it cost effective (and would it matter if it is)? Is it punishment, or just an attempt to protect society?

But if the primary debate is centered around how much pain a condemned prisoner is allowed to feel, then we're missing something big.

Mark said...

Yeah, let's make sure we don't do anything not nice to the person, like cause them pain, while we are doing something completely acceptable like killing them.

So is your objection to this debate that it is putting the cart before the horse? I would agree, in principle. But (legally at least) the fact that execution is accepted limits the scope of the discussion. I think this is what Judge Fogel was intending - to consciously not debate the constitutionality of the death penalty itself. From the inmate's point of view: "I accept that you are going to kill me, but before you do, let's talk about how you are going to do it." Given that context, this is a reasonable debate, I think. But to your point - perhaps there should be a widening of the scope here, but that's probably a question that will never really get laid to rest. (hmm.. poor choice of words, I guess)

Dan said...

While recognizing the judicial necessity of accepting current law, the thing that really gets me is the relative levels of importance being given to the questions of pain and death in California's current debate.

I'd say the question of death is more important (I almost typed "mort important"!) than the question of pain. The CA jurists are only looking at the pain part of the equation.

Why does all this belong on this blog? Partly because I find it interesting, but mostly because this is part of a larger debate on process -vs- product, and means -vs- ends. In the program management world, it's the equivalent of getting better and better at doing stuff that is less and less relevant (if I can loosely correlate relevance and morality).

I'm just saying we should make sure our ends are good first, then talk about what sort of means we can employ. Have a meaningful (relevant, moral, etc) objective, then establish a good process to get you there...

Mark said...

Some people would be mortified by you injecting such shocking opinions on this topic. But I say, let it all hang out and have a nice thoughtful discussion - just don't lose your head and say something you'll regret.

(sorry, couldn't resist a little gallows humor)

I think the problem is often (in both PM and the death penalty analogy) that the ends are assumed to be clear/understood/agreed/unchanging, etc. So the energy and focus naturally goes to optimizing the means. This is fine - except when said assumption turns out to be untrue....

Dad said...

Hi Dan and Mark: wow, I'm impressed and I'm only your Dad....as usual, rather than take sides on my two sons (I'm fiercely proud of both of you and of what you both have written - I would need more time to sift through and process everthing you both have already written- and it's late), so I'll toss in my own 2 cents. Since I'm the only one in the family that is currently working in a Maximum secuirty prison with the very people of whom you speak (prisoners who have committed murder, eg, and are either on death row or doing 25 to Life), the situation is complicated. Is the death penaly a deterrent to further crime in NY state? The answer is a less than satisfying: it depends. For the chronic criminals who make violence and murder a casual 'way of life' (I call them psychopaths), the answer is absolutely not. They couldn't care less about the death penalty or anything else for that matter. Even a life sentence is viewed as no big deal. For other non-chronic criminals (non-psychopaths), I think prison and the Death penalty is a deterrent from further violence and murder. I'm too tired and sleepy to add any more tonight. Good job guys - I'm proud of both of you....Dad

Dan said...

Thanks for joining in, Dad! Good stuff! I really appreciate your real-world, first-person perspective (as always).

It's been a very interesting discussion so far, and I think Mark hit the nail on the head in his last comment about assumptions. That's what it really comes down to, doesn't it? When we assume the ends we seek are legit (and don't need to be examined anymore), we are free to focus solely on the means.

As a program manager, that translates to setting one's requirements in stone and focusing only on the process (and we end up building a fighter jet that's great at countering the Soviet Air Force... and delivering it in 2005).

As a jurist, that mentality leads to the whole "make sure we don't do anything not nice to the person, like cause them pain, while we are doing something completely acceptable, like killing them" as Mark so cleverly summarized it.