Clearly one of the most controversial topics in modern social history is that of capital punishment, or the death penalty. Once commonly practiced throughout the world, the death penalty has been abolished in most countries. Yet there are still many countries that employ this form of punishment. But how long has this practice been around? What does it involve, and why is society so divided about its use? Come explore the topic with us!
Origins of the Death Penalty
During the reign of Henry VIII of England, an estimated 72,000 people were executed for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
The death penalty is a government sanctioned form of criminal punishment, where a person is put to death by the state.Crimes that are punishable by the death penalty are called “capital crimes” or “capital offences”, and often include crimes such as murder, treason, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Simple enough right? This manner of criminal punishment has been used in almost all societies at one point or another throughout history – in some cases, dating back to ancient times. However, looking at modern history, there are a few important historical examples.
Death Penalty and the Witch Trials
In medieval and modern Europe (before the establishment of modern prison systems), the death penalty was used as a general form of punishment for all manner of crimes. During the reign of Henry VIII of England, for example, an estimated 72,000 people were executed for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. During this period as well, the infamous prosecution of alleged witches was widespread in Europe, and then later in the recently colonized Americas. Those charged with witchcraft were seen as a satanic threat to the often predominantly Christian societies they lived in. As a result, thousands of women were executed between the 15th and 18th centuries based on charges of witchcraft.
However, in spite of its widespread use, the death penalty was opposed by some. In the 12th century, Moses Maimonides, a Jewish scholar, wrote that, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death.” He felt that the flagrant use of the death penalty in Europe resulted in countless innocent deaths (which was, in fact, very true), and argued that this was ruining the validity of the justice system. Maimonides’ arguments became more common from the 16th century onward, with the emergence of modern nation states. In these systems, justice and the law developed more fully, as the concepts of natural and legal rights also developed. It is during this period that the prison system and police forces also started to become similar to what we have today.
Cesare Beccaria’s was the first to pen a thorough analysis of the death penalty, and to argue for its abolition in Crimes and Punishments (1764). He noted the counter-productivity of the the death penalty, as it often incited greater unrest among the population. This point and others were also noted by other influential, modern thinkers, such as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.
The Death Penalty Today
The death penalty remains a very controversial issue that continues to be debated in many countries (most notably, The United States). The general public opinion on the death penalty ranges greatly from country to country, with countries such as New Zealand where 45% of the population support it, and countries like Norway where 75% of the population are in opposition. In addition to this range of opinion, there is also a range of method. Generally speaking, most countries that retain the death penalty have sought more “humane” execution methods, but how this is defined varies greatly. Recently in the United States, the topic of the death penalty came to light when the government voted against the U.N ban on the death penalty for homosexuality. The United States was joined by Iraq, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in opposing the ban.
The last person to be executed by firing squad in the United States was in 2010.
Regardless of the changes in methods that have been adopted by many countries that continue to apply the death penalty, there are many who continue to protest its use altogether. These individuals, known as abolitionists, believe that the death penalty is an extreme violation of human rights. In particular, of the natural human right to life. Indeed, it isn’t hard to see why the death penalty violates this right, as the government takes matters into to their own hands, wielding the power to determine who can live or die. We might believe that the death penalty is a form of justice, but that assumes that justice is always applied equally. Since 1973 in the United States, 173 people on death row have been exonerated. We can assume that the number of innocent people put to death is much higher. Is this a risk that society is willing to take?
Abolitionists also argue that capital punishment violates the right to life unnecessarily by subjecting victims to psychological torture. Human rights activists oppose the death penalty, calling it a cruel and unforgivable act of violence against humanity. Needless to say, this argument is still ongoing, dividing some communities, and inciting passionate debate.