Punishment and the Death Penalty: The Current Debate

Punishment and the Death Penalty: The Current Debate

Punishment and the Death Penalty: The Current Debate

Punishment and the Death Penalty: The Current Debate

Excerpt

The sentencing of the 18-year-old American Michael Fay to a caning in Singapore and Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun's unequivocal public renunciation of capital punishment have intensified current debate over punishment in general and capital punishment in particular—the two topics of this collection of essays.

Michael Fay, a high school student visiting Singapore, was convicted of minor vandalism and sentenced to a brief imprisonment, a small fine, and a caning. The caning part of his sentence has occasioned an international controversy. Some think caning is a cruel punishment, inappropriate for use in civilized societies; others regard caning as inappropriately harsh for so minor an offense as Fay's vandalism (spray painting two automobiles). Still others think it's about time somebody did something to keep teenagers in line, and if caning will do the trick then so be it.

On the eve of his retirement, 85-year-old Justice Harry Blackmun, after nearly a quarter century on the Court, has reversed his position on capital punishment. Declaring that "from this day forward" he would "no longer tinker with the machinery of death," Blackmun argued (in a dissenting opinion which appears in this collection) that capital punishment as practiced in the United States is unconstitutional because it is applied in a discriminatory manner. He has taken this position at a time when capital punishment has been revived in this country, and is proceeding at a rate of thirty to forty executions annually.

The practice of punishment is standard in all societies. The ways in which punishment is inflicted vary with history and culture. The Michael Fay case brings to our attention cultural differences in enforcing punishment. In late twentieth-century America, the infliction of punishment does not allow deliberate physical pain or torture. In Singapore, by contrast, it routinely does include bodily pain for those convicted of a crime, the extent of the torture varying with the magnitude of the crime. Andrew Glass, in an editorial . . .

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