Less Human Than Human: American Crime Dramas' Influence on Capital punishment/Insandan Daha Az Insan: Amerikan Suc Dizilerinin Olum Cezasi Uzerine Etkileri

By Caldwell, Rose | Interactions, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Less Human Than Human: American Crime Dramas' Influence on Capital punishment/Insandan Daha Az Insan: Amerikan Suc Dizilerinin Olum Cezasi Uzerine Etkileri


Caldwell, Rose, Interactions


In America, it is legal to kill. Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, 1,178 human beings have died due to capital punishment (Death Penalty). Despite continual political debate on whether the death penalty is "cruel and unusual punishment," 63% of Americans are still in favor of the death penalty. This collective will to sentence criminals to death is fed by the media and by popular crime dramas, such as Law and Order, which portray those guilty of capital murder as crazed or depraved individuals unworthy of human mercy.

Americans pride themselves on their advanced economy, their free and democratic political institutions, and their conservative, religious background. Yet, despite these pretensions, America has only 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's imprisoned criminals. According to Amnesty International's annual report, 93% of all executions in 2008 took place in only six countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, USA and Iraq (Death Penalty). Why would a supposedly advanced, democratic society, which is committed to championing human rights around the world, resort to such an inhumane means of punishing its criminals? The 1995 Oscar award winning movie Dead Man Walking addresses this issue by examining the judicial system, which condemns criminals to death, the attitude of the public, including law makers, churchmen and victims' family members, which approves of the death penalty; and the demoralization of the criminal himself. The conclusion of the movie is that the hegemonic discourse about criminals in America has developed into promoting "hate" for the criminals and demoting them to subhuman creatures, who should unarguably die. Popular media, in particular television crime dramas, influence the general opinions of lawmakers and the American public to view the criminal as faceless and inhuman. If one examines the popular television show Law and Order and similar shows, one generally finds the criminal portrayed as a callous murderer deserving death. While crime dramas like Law and Order have the ability to influence the general attitude of Americans on the death penalty, Dead Man Walking fights this hegemonic conviction by giving a face to the public's faceless condemned killers. This movie and other currents at work in American society have converged to indicate a change in the prevailing view of capital punishment in America.

An example of the dehumanization of the criminal is found in one of the Law and Order episodes, called "Teenage Wasteland", in which an eighteen year-old boy beats an Asian man to death. When he is finally caught and the case is going to trial, the debate comes up as to whether he should be tried for the death penalty. When a prosecutor asks the detective who found the boy whether the court should convict a young, eighteen year-old boy, her reply is, "Where I come from, when a person does something that is so vicious, so cruel, the person forfeits the right to get older". This is a frightening statement from the protagonist of the show. This statement makes the death penalty not an objective punishment from the court, but a subjective vendetta for the criminal's action. In this same episode, when the trial starts, the show focuses on the victim's tearful family. It shows the sickening pictures of the dead victim. Then the show focuses on the guilty eighteen year-old boy. His face is indifferent; his head is held high as if full of pride; there is no evidence that he is afraid of dying. When he is allowed to talk to his mother the night before the trial, he acts as if he were just talking to her so he could use her for his defense. There is no evidence of a mother-son bonding or any emotional response for his heart-stricken mother. The criminal has no human qualities or emotions and seems incapable of rehabilitation. Seemingly, Law and Order is trying to dilute the horrid reality of condemning an eighteen year-old to death by portraying him as a criminal beyond help. …

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