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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8.3 (2005) 477-498
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Moving Beyond the Rhetorics of Dignity and Depravity; or, Arguing About Capital Punishment
Stephen John Hartnett
Daniel Mark Larson
The death penalty splits Americans into hostile camps that rarely speak to each other. Much like abortion, capital punishment polarizes views, catalyzes emotions, and prods even the mild-mannered toward vein-popping tirades that short-circuit conversation and debate. Victims of violent crimes, for example, often feel that their pain is dishonored by activists opposed to the death penalty. At a town forum in Houston in 2002 a 65-year-old woman stood screaming at the first author, tears streaking her face: "My boy was gunned down by a maniac! Killed in cold blood! How dare you talk to me about the death penalty—what do you know about suffering?" A few minutes later the daughter of a prisoner sentenced to die rose from the crowd to shout back, tears streaming down her face as well: "My daddy's gonna die 'cause people like you think killing a black man's gonna bring back your dead boy—well it ain't. Like always, you're just killin' more black folk. So don't talk to me about suffering." On and on it goes, with the death penalty dredging up stories of slavery, of murdered sons and daughters, of police lost in the course of duty, of innocents trapped in a bureaucracy that seems less interested in pursuing justice than in scoring prosecutions, with one side focusing on the inherent dignity of those who commit even the worst crimes and another side seeing this same group as inherently depraved. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a story, and many seem to assume that anyone who disagrees with them does so out of spite. Indeed, arguments about the death penalty seem to skip past any sense of history or politics or jurisprudence, instead spilling forth in stories that have little to do with anything resembling systematic evidence.
For example, proponents of the death penalty have argued for centuries that executing murderers decreases the likelihood that other criminals will commit violent crimes—the deterrence thesis—despite the fact that no credible research supports that claim. On the other hand, opponents of the death penalty have argued for centuries that executions teach the public to be more violent—the brutalization thesis—yet no credible research supports this claim either. Both arguments are wrong; powerfully persuasive and heartfelt, yes, but factually wrong. Or consider the complicated ways race feeds arguments about capital punishment. Opponents of the death penalty have claimed since the early antebellum period that hangings were part of the arsenal of violence used to sustain racism in general and slavery in...