For a Moratorium on ‘Uncivilized’

Austin Sarat and Christian Boulanger on European death-penalty opponents:

Particularly in European abolitionist discourse, the binary opposition between "civilized" and "uncivilized" criminal justice systems is conjured up all too often and too easily. While this might be a powerful rhetoric, it only works as a "conversation stopper." It is further empirically incorrect, since abolition seems to be rooted in European societies much less than the claim implies. Lastly, it seems the perpetuation of colonialist discourse to establish moral hierarchies between whole societies based on their "civilizational progress."

Sarat & Boulanger, ‘Putting Culture into the Picture’, in Sarat & Boulanger, The Cultural Lives of Capital Punishment, pp. 32-33.

9 thoughts on “For a Moratorium on ‘Uncivilized’

  1. > Lastly, it seems the perpetuation of colonialist discourse to establish
    > moral hierarchies between whole societies based on their “civilizational
    > progress.”

    Yep, and those high falutin human rights are relative, if not tools for colonialist oppression. Societies that don’t provide the basic needs of its members are not ‘inferior’, God forbid, they’re different – hooray for post-colonialist discourse.

    Though I find it hard not to regard capital punishment as civilised, I concur on Sarat’s & Boulanger’s position on the US, anyway.

  2. The other way to counter this argument is to use it against them: You point out that various U.S. states abolished the death penalty in the 19th century. Germans don’t know this.

    I usually pick Michigan as an example, where nobody has ever been executed, not one single person, since statehood 1837. This was 131 years before England abolished the death penalty (1969) and 144 years before France and Germany (both 1981, unless you want to play games and claim the last “real” execution — that is, in West Germany — was 1949, which is still 112 years later).

    In other words, Michigan abolished the death penalty before Germany even existed as a nation (1871). It has been my experience that this little piece of information takes care of a lot of crap. Other useful states are Wisconsin (1853), Maine (1887), and Minnesota (1911).

  3. @Marek:

    Though I find it hard not to regard capital punishment as civilised

    But of course you would find that hard. It’s all in the mode of execution. So here we go: Condemn barbarism, but not those who would strive to make the death penalty humane. Seems like American justice is pious power plus electrification.

    @Scot W. Stevenson:

    In other words, Michigan abolished the death penalty before Germany even existed as a nation (1871). It has been my experience that this little piece of information takes care of a lot of crap.

    Gee, that sure is a cogent argument that must shut up any stupid German who thinks he can get away with such unwarranted generalizations as “death penalty in America”! Assuming he even knows what Michigan is, haha. But what if he counters that there has never been an execution on the island of Sylt in all of recorded history?* Then he wins the argument, the end.

    * Certain customs notwithstanding. I didn’t actually check this, though.

  4. @Sebastian: This is not about geographical regions, but political units. Last time I checked, Sylt was not a Bundesland, Michigan is. Not a problem.

    Speaking of which, the other thing few Germans know is that the death penalty has not been abolished in all of Germany: it is, still today, in Hessen’s constitution. Only federal law prevents death sentences there.

    Why doesn’t Hessen get rid of Artikel 21, being a civilized place and all of that? Because they’d have to put the change to a popular vote, and they are afraid how that vote would turn out. What if the voters decided that they do want murders to die?

  5. “Why doesn’t Hessen get rid of Artikel 21, being a civilized place and all of that?”

    Because that would require a plebiscite – a costly waste of time because the result is legally insignificant in any event? Bavaria, where plebiscites are easier to arrange, get casually rid of it in 1998 and I don’t think Bavarians are more liberal than Hessians (However, I must admit that Catholicism which strongly opposes the death penalty was probably an additional relevant factor). By the way, not only the Grundgesetz bans the death penalty in Germany, the European Declaration of Human Rights [Europäische Menschenrechtskonvention (EMRK)] does it, too. Banning the death penalty is required for EU membership, that’s why Turkey abolished it in 2004. Even Russia has not made use of the death penalty since becoming a member of the Council of Europe.

    And I’ve never heard the idea of a plebiscite dealing with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in the US, especially religious education in public schools like in Germany…

    So instead of deconstructing the meaning of “civilization” or “civilized” just look at the the countries that carried out the most death penalties in 2006:

    1. China
    2. Iran
    3. Pakistan
    4. Iraq
    5. Sudan
    6. United States

    Strange bedfellows in my opinion…

  6. @Scot W. Stevenson

    Why doesn’t Hessen get rid of Artikel 21, being a civilized place and all of that?

    Presumably because it wouldn’t change one thing. Nobody gets executed now, nobody would get executed if the article was struck. Meanwhile dozens of people get executed in the US every year. But not in Michigan, which “Germans don’t know” because it’s completely irrelevant.

    (It does bear mentioning that the US also executes delinquents on a federal level, including people from Michigan, such as Victor Feguer, d. 1963, the last individual executed by the federal government before George W. Bush restarted the fun in 2001.)

    Because they’d have to put the change to a popular vote, and they are afraid how that vote would turn out. What if the voters decided that they do want murders to die?

    No, they aren’t afraid of that. They have no reason to. As has been mentioned, the state of Bavaria out this to the test in 1998, and it turned out that 75% of Bavarians approved of the (purely symbolic) abolishment of the death penalty provision.

  7. @Sebastian

    Believe it or not, I messed up negations embarrassingly: actually I find it hard not to regard capital punishment as uncivilised. To make it clear without ambiguity: I oppose death penalty and always have – in this blog, too. Of course, you’re free to allege a Freudian slip instead of poor grammar, me being utterly evil for not esteeming fascists of any colour anyway, and thus being dumb at that. Facists? cf here, Ctrl+F for Heitmeyer. I wonder what this lovely crop of youth’s best has to say on the subject of capital punishment.

    Anyway, presumably I spread a little happiness for some time, so I furthered common good, which might heighten my Karma – win-win scenario, alles wird gut.

  8. “The other way to counter this argument is to use it against them: You point out that various U.S. states abolished the death penalty in the 19th century. Germans don’t know this.”

    I did not know this in fact. I don’t know what to make of this, though, especially since to my knowledge capital punishment has been legally abolished in only 12 US states. Lucky if you’re living in one of them. Among the top five execution-practicing states there are two quite important (in population) ones: Texas and Florida. This doesn’t counter your Minnesota-argument, but to analyse the situation one should get the full picture.

    What convinces me more than geographical breakdowns or the history of abolishment is that the total number of executions has gone down, albeit slightly, in the United States in the recent years. I am hopeful this is more than a trend.

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