"I have brought you people here since there has been willful disobedience on the part of too many of you. This will change. You have watched Nevenkebla justice taking place. These two prisoners have been found guilty of a number of criminal charges. The penalty for being found guilty of these charges is death. They will die at eight tomorrow morning. Do you understand this?"

A murmur went through the listening crowd and Stirner stood up. The guards reached for him but Zennor stopped them.

"I am sure I speak for all here," Stirner said, "when I ask for some explanation. This is all very confusing. And the most confusing part of all is how do these men know about their deaths tomorrow? They do not look ill. Nor do we understand your knowledge of the precise hour of their demise."

Harry Harrison: The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted

Yes, I admit that at least in this regard, I am a pinko-liberal weakling: I strongly oppose the death penalty.

First of all, I must state that I'm not squeamish about the idea that some people deserve to die. In fact, I could easily imagine myself killing a criminal who hurt me or my family badly enough. But that's revenge, not justice, no matter how it may appeal to my personal sense of what's just. Having accomplished my revenge, my next trip would be to the nearest police station where I'd present myself for arrest, having just committed premeditated murder.

Why, exactly, do we punish criminals? I can think of four possible reasons: revenge; protection of our society; reforming the criminal; or deterring others.

It has long been established that the justice system of an enlightened state does not serve the purposes of revenge. So I assume that the death penalty is not about revenge either, and that when death penalty proponents repeatedly state that this or that criminal deserves to die, they are voicing a personal opinion, not a justification for this form of punishment.

The death penalty is certainly an effective way to protect society from the criminal: but do we need to be so drastic? Incarceration is just as efficient, and (given the costs of death penalty litigation) probably not any more expensive.

Does the death penalty reform the criminal? Well, in a manner of speaking; a corpse will not commit further crimes, that's certain.

That leaves us the issue of deterrence. At first, one would assume that the death penalty is a strong deterrent, but I have read repeatedly that that is not the case: the introduction of the death penalty did not significantly change the crime rate anywhere. And even if it were a deterrent, is that reason enough to kill? Would you submit to the executioner if you were told that you'd be killed not for what you did, but to prevent others from wrongdoing?

All these points bring about one conclusion: there is no rational argument in favor of the death penalty. Yet there are a number of reasons why any thinking person should oppose the notion.

First, the death penalty is irreversible. Miscarriages of justice do occur frequently. Even a criminal's own admission of guilt is not perfectly reliable, as numerous examples proved. Incarceration at least gives society a chance to correct an injustice and although nothing can give back years, or decades, spent in prison, some compensation can be made. You cannot compensate a rotting corpse.

Second, the death penalty puts incredible powers in the hands of the state. How can we entrust our authorities with the right to terminate the life of selected citizens, for whatever reason? I always found it ironic that often those who favor the death penalty the most are the ones who trust their government the least. How can this be: you don't trust your government to levy taxes, you don't trust your government with your children's education, but you trust your government with the decision to terminate your life? (Even in places where a death penalty is decided by a jury, the final word is that of a judge, various committees, or politicians.)

Society is an institution that exists for one purpose: to allow lots of people, very different people, to live together. Sometimes this involves tough decisions, sometimes it is necessary to limit the freedom of individuals for the greater good. But taking a person's life is society's admission of failure: since it has not been able to create a compromise for coexistence, it responds by eliminating some of its members.

Followup notes: I originally wrote this in January 1998. Since then, there have been a number of executions in the United States, including the particular case of a Texas woman who has reportedly changed into a very different person during her decade-long stay on death row. There was also the case of a Japanese man who spent, if memory serves me correctly, almost 20 years on death row. He became a celebrated writer, only to be executed by the state in secret, his last book unfinished.

There were also a number of cases here in Canada of innocent people convicted of heinous crimes, who then spent years, in one case TWENTY-EIGHT years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Had the death penalty not been abolished in this country, some of these people would surely have been executed.