The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

By Franklin E. Zimring | Go to book overview

II
EXPLAINING THE
AMERICAN DIFFERENCE

TWO DIFFERENT KINDS of questions can be asked about the death penalty in the United States. One inquiry concerns the whole of the history and the function of the death penalty: why American governments use it, why most citizens support it, why some groups oppose it, and so forth. A detailed account of the whole of this history will cover many topics and will also overlap with the history of capital punishment in other nations. The history of capital punishment in one developed nation will be similar in its content and timing to the story in other developed nations.

The second sort of question that can be asked is, What sets the United States apart from the pattern of recent history in the rest of the Western world? This inquiry will not emphasize all of the common elements in the history of capital punishment in the developed nations; it searches instead for those exceptional elements in American history and governmental structure that account for why the United States is pursuing a different policy at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Does this separate course have causes that we can identify? This type of analysis implicates a narrower range of issues. The chapters that follow concern this second, more specific sort of question.

The next three chapters develop an explanation for the exceptional status of the death penalty in the United States. Two elements of American culture and government have jointly caused a revival of executions in the United States in the last years of the twentieth century. One is the federal system of government, which grants states extraordinary powers in the

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