For Capital Punishment

Harper's Magazine, April 1979; reprinted in Walter Berns, In Defense of Liberal Democracy (Regnery Gateway, 1984).


Until recently, my business did not require me to think about the punishment of criminals in general or the legitimacy and efficacy of capital punishment in particular. In a vague way, I was aware of the disagreement among professionals concerning the purpose of punishment—whether it was intended to deter others, to rehabilitate the criminal, or to pay him back—but like most laymen I had no particular reason to decide which purpose was right or to what extent they may all have been right. I did know that retribution was held in ill repute among criminologists and jurists—to them, retribution was a fancy name for revenge, and revenge was barbaric—and, of course, I knew that capital punishment had the support only of policemen, prison guards, and some local politicians, the sort of people Arthur Koestler calls “hanghards” (Philadelphia’s Mayor Rizzo comes to mind). The intellectual community denounced it as both unnecessary and immoral.

Mount St. Mary's University [pdf]
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