SNEDEKER: Civilization’s original sin: The death penalty
Civilization operates best when it can minimize evil. But some evils have always been considered so poisonous and contagious that, for millennia, destroying their practitioners rather than just locking them away and out of sight was what societies did.
Unfortunately, souls were sold in the process.
Some nations still execute certain felons, including our own (17 U.S. states, including South Dakota, continue to allow capital punishment), but there seems to be a hopeful trend to the contrary. State-sanctioned killing of the most depraved criminals, often referred to in morally opaque terms as “the death penalty,” has been abolished in law or practice in 141 countries, two-thirds of the world’s total, according to Amnesty International.
The vast majority of these changes of national heart came very recently in world history, during the second half of the 20th century, although a few nations saw the light somewhat earlier, including the Netherlands (1870), Portugal (1867) and Venezuela (1863).
One of the first to forego murder of its worst lawbreakers was tiny San Marino — its final execution was in 1468 — a former monastic community that evolved into a microstate surrounded by Italy and which claims to be the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world. San Marino is also known, most appropriately, as the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. On the other hand, Vatican City, which contains the Pope, for some reason waited until 1969 to outlaw capital punishment.
The United States is among a checkered roster of nations that still entertain the death penalty, including such states as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan and Bangladesh, according to Amnesty International. We were No. 5 in the world in executions in 2011, with 43, behind global leader China, which does not release such statistics but is known to be a worldbeating enthusiast of capital punishment; Iran (360+); Saudi Arabia (82+); and Iraq (68+). In 2011, the U.S. was the only country in the G8, the Western hemisphere’s eight largest national economies, that carried out any executions at all.
The global trend against death penalties indicates that a broad consensus has evolved among all nations that the practice is morally reprehensible if not indefensible. Powerful and influential nation groups are leading the way, such as the European Union, which requires that none of its member states practice capital punishment. In our own global neighborhood, most Latin American states have abolished the ultimate penalty, as well as Canada.
Although South Dakota reinstated the death penalty in 1979, it remains among the least likely states in the region to execute anyone, having recorded but three executions from 1977 to 2012, same as Montana and Nebraska.
During that same period, however, 1,320 felons were executed nationally by state and federal governments. Our state has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the practice, allowing it when it entered the union in 1889, abolishing it in 1915, reinstating it in 1939, banning it again in 1977 and reinstating it yet again in 1979.
Republican state Sen. Steve Hickey, of Sioux Falls, announced in December he would submit legislation in the Legislature’s 2014 session to once again repeal the death penalty. It’s a timely initiative. Capital punishment has come to look more and more like pure vengeance, an ancient artifact justified by its divine practice in creation stories.
It appears it will soon be rare in the world, and good riddance.
“An eye for an eye,” as Gandhi once lamented, “makes the whole world blind.”