On August 28, 2010, The New York Times had a story about a tour for journalists of the major execution chamber in Tokyo. The tour was initiated by Keiko Chiba, the minister of justice, who is personally opposed to the death penalty. This opposition was apparently intensified last July when, as part of her official duties, she had to attend two executions. Although according to surveys 86% of the Japanese are in favor of the death penalty for the most serious crimes, the minister believed that they were not sufficiently informed about it and that the details revealed by the tour would help to sway public opinion. She also announced that she would appoint a panel of experts to look at this issue in the very near future.
Japan and the United States are the only industrial democracies that still retain the death penalty. Executions in Japan are relatively infrequent, 46 between 2000 and 2009. China, Iran and the United States have the highest numbers (though the U.S. trails behind the other two in this noble trio, though it is far ahead of Japan: 42 in 2007 alone). It should be noted that there has been a steady downward trend in the U.S. both in the number of executions and in the public support for the death penalty.
The death penalty in Japan is administered with exceptional cruelty. Execution is by hanging. Condemned prisoners are kept in solitary confinement, sometimes for many years. They are informed of what is to happen only minutes before an execution (supposedly to avoid panic among other inmates). Families, lawyers and the media are only informed afterward. No pardons are allowed after a sentence of death.
The journalists on the tour could take a picture of the execution chamber. Over a trap door there is a hook in the ceiling, from which the hangman’s rope can be attached. The room is devoid of furniture, except for a statue of the Buddha. That is the detail that caught my imagination.
Why would the authorities put a statue of the Buddha in a death chamber? Buddhist ceremonies are common at funerals in Japan (unlike Shinto ceremonies at weddings), and Buddhism seems to have a particular association with the justice system. For example, many parole officers are Buddhist monks or nuns. These considerations seem insufficient to explain the statue. Could it be placed there to console the condemned? Or could it be to dispel qualms on the part of the hangman? I am reminded of the executioner’s swords exhibited in the Tower of London. Many have religious messages inscribed on them. One reads “Thou art the Judge, Lord Jesus.” The implication is that the executioner is not really doing the act of killing—he is only the instrument of God’s justice—and in the final analysis, it is God who kills. I am not sure how this absolution can be put in Buddhist terms.
How is religion related to support of the death penalty? According to survey data published in 2007 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (by far the most reliable source of religious statistics), 62% of the American public is in favor of the death penalty (after some years of modest but steady decline of that percentage). 74% of white Evangelicals are in favor, 68% of (mainly white) mainline Protestants, 67% of white Catholics—but 59% of the religiously unaffiliated. Earlier Gallup polls showed that, among the affiliated, frequent church-goers are somewhat less in favor (though still a majority).
American church bodies are split on the issue. Statements opposing the death penalty have been made by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference (the Vatican has stated a less blanket opposition), the National Council of Churches, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Methodist Church. Positions in favor of the death penalty (of course only for the most serious crimes) have been made by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (the most conservative Lutheran body—the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was studying the issue). The representative bodies of Conservative and Reformed Judaism have opposed the death penalty, the Orthodox (in line with traditional halacha) have been more nuanced.
The United States is clearly “exceptional” when it comes to the death penalty, both in terms of practice and attitudes. The death penalty is proscribed in European law and any country wishing to join the European Union must foreswear it. Majorities are opposed in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and Latin America. In those countries American “exceptionalism” with regard to the death penalty is a major item cited to justify a negative view of the United States. I have not seen data on how religion relates to attitudes on the death penalty in these countries.
American survey data, as usual, show a somewhat complicated picture. They certainly do not suggest that religion in general pushes people to oppose the death penalty. The data on the religiously unaffiliated, if anything, suggest the opposite. Elites are more important in Europe than in the United States. Cultural elites on both sides of the Atlantic are progressive, and ipso facto opposed to the death penalty. The legal fabric of the European Union is an elite construction, and as such it naturally tends to influence public opinion at least in some areas (Hans Kelsen’s famous concept of the “normative power of facticity”). It is important to recall that two books by authors who were agnostics if not atheists were very influential in creating the European consensus against the death penalty: Arthur Koestler’s Reflections on Hanging (1956) in Britain and Albert Camus’ Reflections on the Guillotine (1957) in France. (I don’t know whether Camus intended to allude to Koestler’s title.)
It is possible that major world religions engender positive attitudes toward the death penalty because they envisage retribution and perhaps redemption in a life after death—the three Abrahamic traditions because they believe in a day of judgment, Hinduism and Buddhism because they believe in the inexorable operation of karma from one incarnation to the next. In principle, these beliefs provide grounds for a good conscience on the part of judges and hangmen—God or the universe will sort out things in the afterlife. I do not think that these consequences follow with necessity from these beliefs, but they have followed quite often in actual history. One can certainly find sources for a humane revulsion against the death penalty in Judaism and Christianity, and one can argue that the full implications of this revulsion took centuries to come to fruition (as, for another important case, it happened with the revulsion against slavery). And it can be argued that the European Enlightenment was a late fruit of Biblical religion. The fact remains that the opposition to the death penalty in modern Western history was first institutionalized under Enlightenment influence and continues to be propagated by those who can rightly claim to be children of the Enlightenment—to wit, progressive intellectuals and politicians. If one does not see oneself as a member of this community, one may regret the association of humane sentiments with progressive ideology, but one should acknowledge the empirical fact.
When I began this blog, I promised my putative readers that I would clearly signal whenever I leave objectivity (Max Weber’s “value-freeness”) aside to make statements based on my moral or religious values. This is such an occasion. What follows here is emphatically not “value-free.”
As long as I can remember, I have considered the death penalty an abhorrent evil. It is the ultimate act of cruelty—to kill a human being completely under your control and thus unable to do any more harm, and to kill him methodically, on schedule, and to do so on the pretension that the act is a celebration of society’s moral judgment. The death penalty as practiced in modern societies is also the ultimate case of what Jean-Paul Sartre has called “bad faith” (mauvaise foi)—acting while one pretends that one is not. Elaborate legal definitions of the killing act absolve the killers from personal responsibility for what they are doing because supposedly they are representing the impersonal judgment of the law. It is in this context that I once wrote that God is illiterate: He has not read the law books that allow judges and hangmen to disclaim personal responsibility. He only sees what human beings are actually doing to each other. I have also long considered the attitude to the death penalty as a reliable test of an individual’s moral status—does he or does he not recognize this act as an atrocity. By the same token I consider the presence or absence of the death penalty an important test of a society’s level of civilized morality—applying this test, the European Union (a political construction which, on other grounds, I do not admire uncritically) is on a higher level of civilization than the United States (though there are many reasons to admire the latter). Politically, I am a conservative (on the moderate side), and therefore distressed by the statistical correlation between conservatism and attitudes favoring the death penalty. As a citizen of the United States, I am ashamed of the place it occupies on the world map of capital punishment, hand in hand with China and Iran. Most relevant in the present context, I find it obscene that many followers of a religion whose founder suffered an exceptionally cruel form of execution should favor the death penalty—and not only obscene but blasphemous when they justify this atrocity in His name.
As far as modern Western history is concerned, one may give credit, rather reluctantly, to its attempts to make executions more humane. The gallows were an advance over such earlier methods as disembowelment or burning alive. The guillotine was invented as an expression of progressive humaneness, the very symbol of republican virtue. In the United States the moves from the gallows to the electric chair to the quasi-medical procedure of lethal injection represent a similar aspiration to humaneness. One may also find satisfaction in the slow but (so far) steady decline of public approval of the death penalty in the United States. It has been enhanced by especially horrid scenes communicated by the media—individuals being literally fried in the electric chair or having to wait endlessly while inept executioners tried to find a vein for the lethal injection—and by the cases of DNA testing showing that innocent persons ended up on death row. I hope that eventually the simple but decisive truth will be grasped in public opinion: There is no truly humane way of putting people to death.
I hope that Keiko Chiba succeeds in changing public opinion in Japan by making people actually see a death chamber, and that her “panel of experts” will come out against the death penalty. (Just what “expertise” is needed to recognize an atrocity?) I even wish for her the insight that her person cannot be divorced from her “official duties”. Perhaps she already has this insight and has been motivated by it to take these steps.