The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

By Franklin E. Zimring | Go to book overview

Preface

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT in the United States is an issue of great moral, political, legal, and practical importance. But the practice of executions in the United States in the early years of the twenty-first century is one other thing: It is a puzzle.

Why does the United States execute when every other developed Western nation has ceased to use the taking of life as a legal punishment? What elements of American history and culture create an affinity for state executions? What is the most likely future of the death penalty in the United States?

This book is my effort to resolve the puzzle of American capital punishment, to explain the contradictions in American culture that generate conflict over the death penalty and the changes that will be necessary to bring American capital punishment to a peaceful end.

My explanation revolves around three distinctive interpretations of capital punishment as an American phenomenon. I show that some of the same pressures that have led to the condemnation of the death penalty in Europe have produced instead its reinvention in the United States. The proponents of capital punishment have engineered a symbolic transformation over the last two decades. We now tell ourselves that an executing government is acting in the interest of victims and communities rather than in a display of governmental power and dominance. The net effect of this recent change is that the United States and the rest of the Western world are further apart on the death penalty than ever before, and in

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