America's Death Penalty: Between Past and Present

By David Garland; Randall McGowen et al. | Go to book overview

1
Introduction
Getting the Question Right? Ways of
Thinking about the Death Penalty

RANDALL MCGOWEN

In recent years the death penalty has lost none of its power to arouse powerful emotions or to produce heated debates. Indeed, the question of capital punishment has secured greater prominence, as it has become one of the defining issues in the campaign to promote recognition of international human rights. The result has been the transformation of a debate largely taking place within national political contexts and arising mainly within Western culture into a cause that leaders of all nations feel compelled to address. Debates at the United Nations, discussions before various human rights conventions, as well as the attention of the world press have all brought a level of scrutiny of national practices that is difficult to avoid. Proponents of the abolition of the penalty assert that it violates universal human rights which transcend local traditions or circumstances. Their opponents tend to reject this claim, asserting, instead, the priority of separate and distinct national or religious identities.

Often the ethical and moral argument over capital punishment is posed as a timeless question whose fundamental shape has not, and cannot, change.1 Yet, paradoxically, much recent scholarly discussion has centered on a particular country and its peculiar history, namely, America’s retention of the death penalty. To many observers, the survival of capital punishment in this country appears both a puzzle and a provocation. The question seems simple, even if the answer has proved elusive: Why should a nation that casts itself as a leader in the battle for human rights resist so tenaciously the elimination of a practice so self-evidently a holdover from darker times? A great deal seems to be at stake in the answer to this question. The presence of capital punishment in America feels more threatening, at least to American and European scholars and activists, than its occurrence elsewhere in the world. Indeed, it often seems as if answering the riddle of the death penalty depends

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