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In Defense of "I'm Against the Death Penalty, But..."

With Oklahoma's recent botched execution in the news, the death penalty is on a lot of minds today. Whenever the subject comes up online, someone inevitably mentions that they're against the death penalty but don't feel bad about it in this particular case. (See this comment thread, just yesterday.) A variation on this is, when particularly gruesome crimes come to light, the comment that "I don't support the death penalty, but this guy almost makes me reconsider."

Just in the past week or so, I've seen people respond to statements like these by pointing out what seems to be an inconsistency. "Actually," the argument goes, "you're either for the death penalty or against it. If you would support it in this case, you're not against it."


To that second person: cut it out. Its only purpose, as far as I can tell, is a sort of holier-than-thou social justice posturing in which you make it clear that anyone who isn't 100% with you must be against you. Also, you're wrong.

People are against the death penalty for a lot of different reasons: because it's wrong to give the state that much power as a matter of principle, because it violates the 8th Amendment, because there's a chance of false conviction, because it's outrageously expensive, because it's racially biased, because legal justice should not be eye-for-an-eye. These are all common positions that people can and do hold.

None of them mean that someone can't want rapists and murderers to die. There's nothing inherently contradictory in both personally wanting someone to suffer for their crimes and believing that the state should not be the one to cause that suffering.

I can believe that it's wrong to intentionally give someone a disease and still wish that Rick Perry would catch an STD that makes his asshole itch 24/7. I can recognize that the meat industry does terrible things and still think that pulled pork is delicious.* I can agree that there's a problem with Firefly's lack of Asian characters and yet still enjoy the show.


In short: If my personal feelings are not contributing to a societal problem, they do not necessarily challenge my commitment to solving that problem.

Now, if you're against the death penalty because you believe that there is no crime serious enough to merit that punishment but then turn around and say "he deserved the death penalty," then yeah. You should probably think your positions through again. The same goes if you're actually calling for the death penalty in one particular case rather than speaking in hypotheticals.


But if you're thinking that, setting the criminal justice system aside for a moment, you're kind of glad that a horrible person suffered a little bit at the end of their life? Carry on. You're clearly not the only one.


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