The same thing precisely takes place on a larger scale when there is a crime which destroys a
whole community??s sense of security. Every law-abiding citizen feels menaced and frustrated
until the criminals have been struck down--until the communal capacity to get even with
them, and more than even, has been dramatically demonstrated. Here, manifestly, the
business of deterring others is no more than an afterthought. The main thing is to destroy the
concrete scoundrels whose act has alarmed everyone, and thus made everyone unhappy. Until
they are brought to book that unhappiness continues; when the law has been executed upon
them there is a sigh of relief. In other words, there is katharsis.
I know of no public demand for the death penalty for ordinary crimes, even for ordinary
homicides. Its infliction would shock all men of normal decency of feeling. But for crimes
involving the deliberate and inexcusable taking of human life, by men openly defiant of all
civilized order--for such crimes it seems, to nine men out of ten, a just and proper
punishment. Any lesser penalty leaves them feeling that the criminal has got the better of
society--that he is free to add insult to injury by laughing. That feeling can be dissipated only
by a recourse to katharsis, the invention of the aforesaid Aristotle. It is more effectively and
economically achieved, as human nature now is, by wafting the criminal to realms of bliss.
The real objection to capital punishment doesn??t lie against the actual extermination of the
condemned, but against our brutal American habit of putting it off so long. After all, every one
of us must die soon or late, and a murderer, it must be assumed, is one who makes that sad
fact the cornerstone of his metaphysic. But it is one thing to die, and quite another thing to lie
for long months and even years under the shadow of death. No sane man would choose such
a finish. All of us, despite the Prayer Book, long for a swift and unexpected end. Unhappily, a
murderer, under the irrational American system, is tortured for what, to him, must seem a
whole series of eternities. For months on end he sits in prison while his lawyers carry on their
idiotic buffoonery with writs, injunctions, mandamuses, and appeals. In order to get his money
(or that of his friends) they have to feed him with hope. Now and then, by the imbecility of a
judge or some trick of juridic science, they actually justify it. But let us say that, his money all
gone, they finally throw up their hands. Their client is now ready for the rope or the chair. But
he must still wait for months before it fetches him.
That wait, I believe, is horribly cruel. I have seen more than one man sitting in the deathhouse, and I don??t want to see any more. Worse, it is wholly useless. Why should he wait at
all? Why not hang him the day after the last court dissipates his last hope? Why torture him as
not even cannibals would torture their victims? The common answer is that he must have time
to make his peace with God. But how long does that take? It may be accomplished, I believe,
in two hours quite as comfortably as in two years. There are, indeed, no temporal limitations
upon God. He could forgive a whole herd of murderers in a millionth of a second. More, it has
been done.