A little blatant self-promotion here. Katharine Whittemore in the Boston Globe just began a round-up of seven books about capital punishment and life sentences with this punchy, but essentially accurate, abstract of my book's argument:
Why has Europe ended the death penalty, but we’ve still got it? The conventional answer trades on cultural divides: America is an immature cowboy nation, racist and trigger happy, while Europe is more measured, mature, and its societies, chastened by two world wars, are understandably keen to avoid further violence. They’re enlightened; we’re philistine. Germany, in fact, got rid of capital punishment in 1949 and Britain in 1969. Before I read today’s books, I’d vaguely guessed that the Germans acted in revulsion at their Nazi past, and the British embraced the moral revolution of the Sixties. I was flat wrong; in both cases, the people overwhelmingly supported the death penalty. But their leaders coolly, blatantly overruled them.
“Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010) helped me, like no other book, to understand the worldwide evolution of the ultimate punishment. When Andrew Hammel, a professor of American law at the University of Düsseldorf, asked European jurists and pols why they’ve succeeded where we’ve failed, he constantly heard this refrain: Americans are naïve to think public opinion must change before the law changes. That’s because the “desire to see murderers executed is a basic drive of human nature, one which only the most educated are able to overcome.”
So that’s their strategy: an elite fait accompli. There are long roots here, for the earliest calls for diminishing the death penalty came from European philosophers invited by European monarchs to put their ideas into practice. Voltaire was pivotal and so was Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, whose 1764 landmark treatise, “On Crimes and Punishments” (Beccaria, 2013), remains powerful reading today and had a marked influence on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Beccaria found it immoral and illogical to treat brutality with brutality: “Murder, which [judges] would represent to us as a horrible crime, we see practised by them without repugnance or remorse.’’
In our era, when those on death row in the United States are in for heinous crimes only, we forget that the state once killed for far less. In 19th century Britain, you could die for some 200 transgressions, including vagrancy and “theft from the premises of a calico printers.” The march toward abolition was a slow one, steadily scratching offenses off — but it was basically a top-down process. Such condescension is a nonstarter in our more populist, pluralist society where 63 percent of Americans favor the death penalty. Eastern European countries had similar stats but, in order to join the European Union, they had to end the practice. The responsive structure of American politics guarantees, for now, it’s here to stay.