America's Death Penalty: Between Past and Present

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

4
Through the Wrong End
of the Telescope
History, the Death Penalty, and
the American Experience

RANDALL MCGOWEN

I begin this essay with a familiar image: an optical instrument meant to help us investigate distant phenomena. Yet the telescope, if used inappropriately, can produce a fundamental misperception about the relationship of an object to the viewer. Similarly history has come to figure prominently in discussions of the place of capital punishment in the contemporary world, especially when trying to explain the seeming gulf between America’s enthusiastic embrace of the death penalty and Europe’s recent rejection of the practice. Increasingly scholars have turned to the American past in an effort to explain what appears to be a puzzling exception.1 Their studies of its culture and history have been powerful and suggestive. Nonetheless one sometimes gets the sense that the perspective adopted in such work is wrong, that the authors are looking too intently at their subject. They view America at a distance, as strange, exotic, and disturbing. In probing ever deeper into the American psyche for the source of this conundrum, they sacrifice what would be gained by taking a wider view of the problem. More particularly, these observers misread the recent history of capital punishment in Europe, and they allow particular deep-seated assumptions about violence and modernity to sway their accounts. The result is that they draw the wrong lesson about the persistence of the question of death in the contemporary political scene.

One problem with these investigations of the American experience is that the institution of capital punishment comes to look opaque; it appears mute, unchanging, a relic of some other historical period. It joins a long list of practices safely exiled to the past. Thus its survival in America seems to be an anomaly, a troubling return of the repressed, perhaps, but not one that

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