Elimination Through Enlightenment: Pinker Analysis of Capital Punishment


The trend in mass shootings  has been to find the body of the perpetrator among or nearby the dead and dying, prone on  the killing floor with his victims— either from his own hand or “neutralized” by the rescuers. (I use the masculine pronoun since these atrocities are always carried out by men.) We are then left with the multiple crises of grieving, the unending questions of causes and answers, and attempts to ferret out some sense of closure as we go about burying the dead. That is the trend, but occasionally the murderer escapes the scene alive, and is either captured in flight, or is subdued on the site. Once in custody, we are faced with another crisis, that of the choice involving continuing or ending the life of the accused: should this person live or die? The state, as a representative of the people forming it, has the legal monopoly to carry out killing, mandated through law. Should it? As it turns out in the case of Nikolas Cruz, the troubled teenager who shot dead seventeen in a high school building, this crisis of choice rests primarily with the jurisdiction’s district attorney or other designated prosecutor. Cruz’ defense attorney has already made the offer to agree to the defendant’s plea of guilt if the death penalty is excluded from the sentence. Almost two weeks has passed since this proposal was floated, but to date, no response has been forthcoming from the prosecutor. It is a “crisis” of choice inasmuch that if the prosecutor proceeds to send the case to trial seeking the death penalty, there is a good chance that, barring any legal snafus or abuses, Cruz will be found guilty. The defense of Cruz would boil down to his unfortunate circumstance of an unstable family life involving adoption, the loss of both adoptive parents, the move to a third family, and the failure of the state to recognize him as potentially sociopathic, and then failing to follow up with him—even with fair warnings from police records and personal testimonies. Neither of these, alone or together, are usually sufficient grounds for meriting a reprieve. The prosecutor in cases that involve the death penalty has a morbidly serious decision that no mere mortal should be confronted with, but usually manages anyway with a clear conscience, assuming a mandate has been proffered from the voting public which, in the United States, approve of the death penalty by over 60%. The United States government law allows for execution only in certain cases of terrorism and treason, but leaves individual states free to make their decisions about it. It is not certain why the U.S. lags behind other developed countries in abolishing this archaic ritual of ultimate vengeance,  it could be a hangover from mythical (read: religious) concepts of retributive and redemptive violence, wherein one is somehow “repaid” or redeemed through acts of violence; but allowing individual states their own option on moral issues involving matters of life and death is not a good idea. Even so, the practice is on the decline according to Steven Pinker in his newly released book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018). Seven states have banned capital punishment in the past decade, bringing the total to 19. Of the 31 states where it is still legal, 16 have moratoria against it. Some states have not used it in over five years. Pinker describes this retreat as a breakdown of the machinery “of the intricate apparatus of death and the team of mechanics to run and repair it,” and further, “As the machine wears out and the mechanics refuse to maintain it, it becomes increasingly unwieldy and invites being scrapped.” That cycle began with the “historical expansion of sympathy and reason,” to the point that even the strongest supporters of the death penalty “lost their stomach” for the brutality of it. Factors playing a role in the growing revulsion are forensic DNA and fingerprinting methods showing that the wrong person is sometimes executed; the relative “dignity” and humanity associated with even its “cleanest” iteration, lethal injection—although a long way from the “gory sadism of crucifixion and disembowelment”—is still fraught with unreliability and pain; and the increasing dependability of penitentiary design and operation making them escape- and riot-proof have made life terms of incarceration within them the more desirable option.


“The pathways [to abolition of the death penalty] are manifold and tortuous,” writes Pinker, “the effects are slow and then sudden, but in the fullness of time an idea from the Enlightenment can transform the world.” And why not? Many ideas from that age have transformed the world, literally . But  for the present, unfortunately, Mr. Cruz’ fate rests on the grim choice the district attorney makes with his state-invested authority to avenge death with death. And we know what that means.



The Humanist Advocate


Marty Bankson