Deadly Numbers

We’re number four! We’re number fo –

Wait – number four? Is that really the best we can do? I mean, look at the competition. These are not powerful nations we are talking about. These places are not the good ol’, god-blessed US of A! We have just got to set our minds to doing better.

Oh, I suppose some of you will complain: “We’re in the middle of a recession. We have more important things to worry about than some silly world ranking.” I say to you – And you call yourself a patriot? Look, I’m not saying we have go all the way and try to overtake number one. Even I admit, the execution gap is too high to top China’s 1,718 killings. But with a few more trips to the gas chamber, a few more butts strapped to Ol’ Sparky, we should –

An old Ol' Sparky

An old Ol' Sparky

[Did he just say “execution gap”? What are we talking about here?]

The Iranians favor a blend of old and new technologies

The Iranians favor a blend of old and new technologies

We are talking about Amnesty International’s report on the number of executions carried out around the world in 2008. (The report was released in May but recently mentioned in a Christian Science Monitor story about last week’s World Day Against the Death Penalty, an event surely marked on the calendars of most Americans.) The United States once again found itself in the stellar company of those other paragons of democracy and free thinking: China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. And just trailing us are some other fine nations we’ve become well acquainted with the last few years: Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan.

I’ve written before about my stance against the death penalty, and I support the abolitionist position for the United States: no executions, anywhere, for any crime. The AI report says that the 37 in ’08 for the US is actually down – the lowest number since 2005 – and is part of a trend worldwide to reduce executions. Several dozen countries have the death penalty on their law books but rarely carry it out.

Curtis McCarty - years on Death Row before DNA evidence exonerated him.

Curtis McCarty - years on Death Row before DNA evidence exonerated him.

I think the work of the Innocence Project and others has shown how often we wrongly convict people, and that has helped raise some doubts about the wisdom of the death penalty. So have the studies about the way it is unfairly applied, leaving the poor, minorities, and the intellectually challenged most likely to be the dead men walking. Although the polls show the popularity of the death penalty, which I’m sure bolsters its support among lawmakers, the arguments against ending it are getting stronger.

Yet I can’t help but feel that a sizable chunk of Americans will always demand their vengeance. A poll taken a few years ago found a majority would even support televising executions, which Guatemala actually did in 2000. That reminded me of a piece I wrote back in college, which combined a game show with public executions (one lucky contestant gets to spin the Wheel of Death to see how inmate 26463 will be killed.) So in almost 30 years, that silly satire seems not too distant from reality.

Now that’s progress.

The Big Three of China, Iran, and Saudia Arabia carried out 91 percent of the world’s known executions in 2008, and I doubt there will be huge ideological/cultural shifts in those places to reduce the number. I try to take some comfort from the AI report, focusing on the 139 countries that have ended executions, either de facto or de jure. And I count on more changes in the United States (even as the governor of my once-again home state rejected a bill that would have ended executions in CT), to reduce the numbers here even more. Maybe we’ll be chanting “We’re Number 23!” Though I’d prefer not to be on the list at all.


~ by mburgan on October 18, 2009.

2 Responses to “Deadly Numbers”

  1. interesting

  2. Thank you. Look for a more historical-oriented take on the death penalty at The History Nerd ( in the days to come.

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