Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mencken: "The Penalty of Death"

Is Mencken arguing for or against capital punishment?

The Penalty of Death (1926)

by H.L. Mencken

Of the arguments against capital punishment that issue from uplifters, two are commonly heard most often, to wit:

1. That hanging a man (or frying him or gassing him) is a dreadful business, degrading to those who have to do it and revolting to those who have to witness it.

2. That it is useless, for it does not deter others from the same crime.

The first of these arguments, it seems to me, is plainly too weak to need serious refutation3. All it says, in brief, is that the work of the hangman is unpleasant. Granted. But suppose it is? It may be quite necessary to society for all that. There are, indeed, many other jobs that are unpleasant, and yet no one thinks of abolishing them--that of the plumber, that of the soldier, that of the garbage-man, that of the priest hearing confessions, that of the sand-hog, and so on. Moreover, what evidence is there that any actual hangman complains of his work? I have heard none. On the contrary, I have known many who delighted in their ancient art, and practiced it proudly.

In the second argument of the abolitionists there is rather more force, but even here, I believe, the ground under them is shaky. Their fundamental error consists in assuming that the whole aim of punishing criminals is to deter other (potential) criminals--that we hang or electrocute A simply in order to so alarm B that he will not kill C. This, I believe, is an assumption which confuses a part with the whole. Deterrence, obviously, is one of the aims of punishment, but it is surely not the only one. On the contrary, there are at least half a dozen, and some are probably quite as important. At least one of them, practically considered, is more important. Commonly, it is described as revenge, but revenge is really not the word for it. I borrow a better term from the late Aristotle: katharsis. Katharsis, so used, means a salubrious discharge of emotions, a healthy letting off of steam. A school-boy, disliking his teacher, deposits a tack upon the pedagogical chair; the teacher jumps and the boy laughs. This is katharsis. What I contend is that one of the prime objects of all judicial punishments is to afford the same grateful relief (a) to the immediate victims of the criminal punished, and (b) to the general body of moral and timorous men.

These persons, and particularly the first group, are concerned only indirectly with deterring other criminals. The thing they crave primarily is the satisfaction of seeing the criminal actually before them suffer as he made them suffer. What they want is the peace of mind that goes with the feeling that accounts are squared. Until they get that satisfaction they are in a state of emotional tension, and hence unhappy. The instant they get it they are comfortable. I do not argue that this yearning is noble; I simply argue that it is almost universal among human beings. In the face of injuries that are unimportant and can be borne without damage it may yield to higher impulses; that is to say, it may yield to what is called Christian charity. But when the injury is serious Christianity is adjourned, and even saints reach for their sidearms. It is plainly asking too much of human nature to expect it to conquer so natural an impulse. A keeps a store and has a bookkeeper, B. B steals $700, employs it in playing at dice or bingo, and is cleaned out. What is A to do? Let B go? If he does so he will be unable to sleep at night. The sense of injury, of injustice, of frustration will haunt him like pruritus. So he turns B over to the police, and they hustle B to prison. Thereafter A can sleep. More, he has pleasant dreams. He pictures B chained to the wall of a dungeon a hundred feet underground, devoured by rats and scorpions. It is so agreeable that it makes him forget his $700. He has got his katharsis.

The same thing precisely takes place on a larger scale when there is a crime which destroys a whole community’s sense of security. Every law-abiding citizen feels menaced and frustrated until the criminals have been struck down--until the communal capacity to get even with them, and more than even, has been dramatically demonstrated. Here, manifestly, the business of deterring others is no more than an afterthought. The main thing is to destroy the concrete scoundrels whose act has alarmed everyone, and thus made everyone unhappy. Until they are brought to book that unhappiness continues; when the law has been executed upon them there is a sigh of relief. In other words, there is katharsis.

I know of no public demand for the death penalty for ordinary crimes, even for ordinary homicides. Its infliction would shock all men of normal decency of feeling. But for crimes involving the deliberate and inexcusable taking of human life, by men openly defiant of all civilized order--for such crimes it seems, to nine men out of ten, a just and proper punishment. Any lesser penalty leaves them feeling that the criminal has got the better of society--that he is free to add insult to injury by laughing. That feeling can be dissipated only by a recourse to katharsis, the invention of the aforesaid Aristotle. It is more effectively and economically achieved, as human nature now is, by wafting the criminal to realms of bliss.

The real objection to capital punishment doesn’t lie against the actual extermination of the condemned, but against our brutal American habit of putting it off so long. After all, every one of us must die soon or late, and a murderer, it must be assumed, is one who makes that sad fact the cornerstone of his metaphysic. But it is one thing to die, and quite another thing to lie for long months and even years under the shadow of death. No sane man would choose such a finish. All of us, despite the Prayer Book, long for a swift and unexpected end. Unhappily, a murderer, under the irrational American system, is tortured for what, to him, must seem a whole series of eternities. For months on end he sits in prison while his lawyers carry on their idiotic buffoonery with writs, injunctions, mandamuses, and appeals. In order to get his money (or that of his friends) they have to feed him with hope. Now and then, by the imbecility of a judge or some trick of juridic science, they actually justify it. But let us say that, his money all gone, they finally throw up their hands. Their client is now ready for the rope or the chair. But he must still wait for months before it fetches him.

That wait, I believe, is horribly cruel. I have seen more than one man sitting in the death-house, and I don’t want to see any more. Worse, it is wholly useless. Why should he wait at all? Why not hang him the day after the last court dissipates his last hope? Why torture him as not even cannibals would torture their victims? The common answer is that he must have time to make his peace with God. But how long does that take? It may be accomplished, I believe, in two hours quite as comfortably as in two years. There are, indeed, no temporal limitations upon God. He could forgive a whole herd of murderers in a millionth of a second. More, it has been done.

"The Penalty of Death" was first published in Prejudices: Fifth Series by H.L. Mencken, 1926.


x3jaye said...

The death penalty has been a controversial topic on our society since it was first established as a method of persecution in our judicial system. Criminals have been given this sentence throughout the years. Depending on the jury, the individual may be given time in jail as little as five years and as long as twenty years before the death penalty is executed. There are three persons involved during this execution. One is the individual being executed, another is the hangman, and the third person is the witness. In H.L. Mencken’s essay “The Penalty of Death,” he favors the death penalty and believes that it is an acceptable form of punishment.
The witness of this capital punishment usually consists of the victim’s family or the victim themselves. Mencken describes the death penalty as a katharsis for these individuals. Katharsis is a term from Aristotle that means “a salubrious discharge of emotions, a healthy letting off of steam.” (391)
As a hangman, his job is to perform the task at hand, which is to either hang, fry, or gas the convicted murderer. It is an unpleasant job, but Mencken states that other jobs are just as unpleasant such as a plumber, solider, garbage man, priest hearing confessions, sandhog, and so on. (391) The hangman is just doing the orders their boss gave them to do.
The convicted murderer must wait sometime before dying. Mencken believes, “It may be accomplished [ . . . ] in two hours quite as comfortably as in two years.” (393) He argues that the challenge against capital punishment is not the task itself, but our American society. We allow these criminals to live longer when they didn’t allow their victims to live for a second longer.
Mencken’s tone is very sarcastic and humourous. He uses appeals to ethics in addition to an appeal of reason. The examples given in the essay provide the pros and cons of the death penalty and everyone effected. The katharsis is the feeling of revenge and method to come to peace with the crime. When the question arises of why our judicial system does not quickly perform the death penalty, the reason of making time to have his peace with God in given. (393) Then counters that reasoning stating that God does not take 20 years to forgive a person, unlike a human. He could forgive a whole herd of murderers in a millionth of a second. Capital punishment is the proper action taken to these convicted murders, but the timing of this process is not necessary.

Jaye Paguiligan
English 102-College Composition-Honors
January 27, 2010
Professor Williams

ThaĆ­s said...

I think Mencken is in favor of capital punishment. With a humorous tone, he tries to make the reader sympathize with his ideas somewhat ‘controversial’. He first starts rebating the first argument presented by what he calls “the uplifters”, by saying that there are other jobs more unpleasant than being a hangman. He continues by saying that deterrence is not the most important aim of the capital punishment, just one of many. He states that revenge, or katharis, as he calls it, is rather more important. He reinforces that what the “victims” want is ‘peace of mind that goes with the feeling that accounts are squared.’ He also suggests to reinforce his argument that not until the criminals have been struck down the law abiding citizens feel relieved, when a crime occurs that destroys a community’s sense of security.
He gives other arguments to defend his point of view: he says that crimes involving the ‘deliberate and inexcusable’ taking of a human life, deserve a proper and just punishment. Otherwise the society may feel that the criminals have taken the best out of them. To be even more emphatic about his point , he says that not only he is in favor of capital punishment, but he thinks that it should be “put off” so long. To him, the criminal should be murdered ‘the day after the last court dissipates his last hope’. I think the author makes his point very clear throughout the text that he is in favor of capital punishment, leaving the reader with no doubts about his point of view.

Stephanie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephanie said...

Henry Louis Mencken’s essay called “The Penalty of Death” has been written to show the hypocrisy behind capital punishment and unfolding the true motive in supporting executions. At that time there have been many controversies as to how a man should pay his dues for a crime that he has committed. You were either for it or against it; I personally believe it was quite impossible to be a neutral when in regard to death of a human. After reading Mencken’s essay it is shown the he is not in favor of capital punishment.
Mencken starts off his argument by presenting those who are against the death penalties. One of the reasons for opposing an execution Mencken writes, “That hanging a man…is a dreadful business, degrading to those who have to do it and…those who have to witness it” (126). He then presents an appeal of reason. In his cutting way of writing, Mencken rationalize that jobs that are unpleasant are not being eliminated. In which he continues to say how there is no evidence of a hangman complaining about his job. Mencken proves that the idea of illegalizing hanging because a job is unpleasant is of laughing matters. However, Mencken is only showing how weak the argument is. For this matter Mencken understands that you do not illegalize something because it’s a bad job because that would be preposterous.
Another argument given to Mencken is how the method of execution is useless and doesn’t prevent others of doing the same crime. Mencken admits that this argument is much better than the first. The author adds more emotions in addition to what has been said. Mencken uncovers the true reason why people enjoy the thought of death penalties. The author says that punishment gives a sense of satisfaction that the person who did wrong is being rightfully punished. Mencken describes how a victim wants to give the criminals exactly what they deserve. In order to relieve the emotion of stress and to satisfy the yearning to avenge what has been done wrong, a penalty must be placed to appease the blood thirsty public.
Mencken finishes he’s arguments with the appeal to ethics. He mocks the American system of putting criminals in imprisonment for a very long time. Mencken sarcastically states how there are no reasons to keep a criminal locked up for so long when at the end he will die. He discloses the disgust of how the public enjoys the knowledge of knowing that the criminal is twiddling his thumb awaiting his death.
It seems as though Mencken is trying to play devil’s advocate by challenging and adding comments. Through his sarcasm he unfolds what the public is really thirsting for when they support executions. As for those who oppose it, he is challenging them to come up with more ground breaking arguments to defend their beliefs.