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Poll: Executions and the theater of punishment

Courtesy of York County Heritage Trust


There may be a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania, but if last week’s local poll on the subject is any indication, the fight for the death penalty’s survival has barely begun.
The conventional wisdom in survey research is that people — Americans especially — like to gravitate toward the centrist answers on public opinion polls. We like to think of ourselves as moderate, middle-of-the-road.
Extremism is downright un-American.
But instead of the bell curve one might expect, our poll on the death-penalty moratorium returned a perfect “U” with the answers clustering at the extremes:
1. The governor is wrong. Delaying the execution of convicted killers is unfair to the victims and to society (25 votes, 36.23 percent).2. I have mixed feelings. We should execute convicted killers, but we need to make sure no innocent person is ever put to death (10, 14.49 percent).
3. The governor is right, but only if the moratorium is temporary, to ensure no innocent person could be executed in Pennsylvania (8, 11.59 percent).
4. The governor doesn’t go far enough. Killing is wrong, and that includes state-sanctioned executions (26 votes, 37.68 percent).
It’s no surprise to me that, for many people, the death penalty is a powerful symbol of personal accountability and justice for victims and families. But I’m still surprised more death-penalty proponents didn’t take one of the middle options.
No one, I’m sure, wants to see the innocent executed, so there must be other reasons to avoid those middle-of-the-road answers. Maybe they don’t trust the governor’s motives, or put too much trust in the system to always get the right guy.
Publicity surrounding a disturbing number of cases in which DNA proves they got the wrong guy — such as York County’s own Ray Krone — have no doubt helped erode support for the death penalty.
Gallup’s most recent survey of the question two years ago indicated 60 percent of Americans favored capital punishment, down from a historic high of 80 percent in 1994. And there is evidence that support for executions continues to decline.
Still, I’m surprised nearly 40 percent of the respondents to our local poll would stake the other extreme. True, if killing is wrong, there is no room for compromise, like there might be for a capital-punishment supporter who backs the governor on this.
Still, I’d like to suggest a modest compromise I think both sides ought to agree on: If we’re going to put people to death, we ought to live-stream the executions so the public can watch what is being done in its name.
That should satisfy those who thirst for revenge, and it underlines any deterrent effect executions might have. Back in the day, people took their kids to hangings as an object lesson of what can happen when you misbehave.
And those opposed to capital punishment ought to welcome a cold-blooded look at the machinery of death.
The father of sociology, Emil Durkheim, talked about what he called the “theater of punishment” — that the justice system reflects and reaffirms the values of the society that enforces them. Certainly the images of barbarous terrorist beheadings say plenty about their own twisted sense of justice.
I like to think most societies have come a long way since burning at the stake and breaking at the wheel were popular entertainments.
But I want to know more before making up my mind. So speaking for myself only, I’d have to agree with the governor. I think we need to take a hard look at the death penalty, and maybe that includes really watching what is being done in our name.
Marc Charisse is night metro editor. Reach him at 771-2042 or email mcharisse@ydr.com.