J U N E 1 9 4 8
by George Bernard Shaw
CAPITAL Punishment is a term which indicates muddled thinking. The dilemma of kill or be killed, which confronts civilized society daily and inexorably, is bedeviled by the jumble of panic, superstition, and angry resentment we call punishment, expiation, propitiatory blood sacrifice, justice, and many other imposing names. The dilemma is a hard fact which must be faced and organized. The jumble should be unraveled and its superstitions utterly discarded.
Let me illustrate. Dogs are friends of Man; but an exceptional dog sometimes goes mad and runs amok through the streets, biting and infecting everybody it comes across. Fond as we may be of dogs we must kill it on the spot, by gun or bludgeon.
Cobras and adders, perfectly sane and normal, may get loose in a school playground or domestic garden. We break their necks without trial by jury.
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A fox caught in a poultry yard is liquidated on the spot, though it is
only acting according to its nature as we ourselves do when we eat the
turkey we have killed the fox for pursuing with the same purpose.
Nobody thinks of these liquidations as punishments, nor expiations, nor sacrifices, nor anything but what they really are: sheer necessities.
Precisely the same necessity arises in the daily-occurring cases of incorrigibly mischievous human beings. They are vermin in the commonwealth, ferocious wild beasts on our highways, robbers and crooks of all sorts.
What are we to do with them? To punish them is absurd: two blacks do not make a white; and punishment creates a class of punishers whose lives are wasted and their characters depraved so that as citizens they become almost as undesirable as the criminals they torture. But the criminals have to be dealt with somehow.
The thoughtless humanitarian is ready with his reply. Reform the criminal: be kind to him.
But the criminal who can be reformed is not the problem. If you can reform him (or her) reform him; that is all. Do not make him a martyr. The real problem is the criminal you cannot reform: the human mad dog or cobra. The answer is, kill him kindly and apologetically, if possible without consciousness on his part. Let him go comfortably to bed expecting to wake up in the morning as usual, and not wake up. His general consciousness that this may happen to him should be shared by every citizen as part of his moral civic responsibility.
There is a considerable class of persons who become criminals because they cannot fend for themselves, but who under tutelage, superintendence, and provided sustenance are self-supporting and even profitable citizens. They make good infantry soldiers and well-behaved prisoners. But throw them out into the street and they are presently in the dock. They also present no problem. Reorganize their lives for them; and do not prate foolishly about their liberty.
But it may be asked whether they are to be allowed not only to read the newspapers but also to marry and breed. Yes, decidedly; for human stock needs its fallows as much as wheat or oats; and these feckless creatures may be only fallows: their children may be competent as their ancestors. Humane treatment of them will not deprave their custodians, and may prove very instructive. But the ungovernables, the ferocious, the conscienceless, the idiots, the self-centered myops and morons, what of them? Do not punish them. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill them. The most amiably softhearted monarch, confronted with a death warrant, must sign it or abdicate as unfit to reign.
The Abolitionists will reply at once that in countries where there is no death penalty there is no increase of crime. But there is the atrociously cruel alternative of imprisonment for life; for though our incorrigibles may be let loose on society after thirteen years or less, they are soon back for again acting according to their natures. Meanwhile they are wasting and depraving honest citizens as warders, chaplains, and jail governors who are almost as much prisoners as the criminals they have to torment.
Besides, the increase or decrease of crime is not the point at issue. The percentage of incorrigibles is not affected by the cruelty or kindness of the law. It would remain the same whether we boiled murderers in oil or gave them gold medals. Capital punishment or no capital punishment, there they are with their problem of what is to be done with them.
They are not all murderers. Most of them are quite incapable of committing a murder, but are equally incapable of discharging their social duties and paying their way. On the other hand, murderers are hanged although they have acted under such provocation that there is no reason to fear that they will make a habit of killing their neighbors. The sole justification for kindly but ruthless judicial liquidation is that the delinquent is a loss and a danger to the community; and on this principle we shall liquidate many more human nuisances than at present if we are to the weed the garden thoroughly.
The civilized ruler must have none of that dread of death, nor, like Peer Gynt, of any irrevocable step, which makes our Abolitionists, whenever a capital sentence is passed, write letters to the papers and sign petitions begging for reprieve, yet if the sentence is commuted to one of imprisonment for life forget all about it and leave the guilty wretch to his fate. Their emotions are as thoughtless as those of the savages who shriek for his execution, and would crowd round the gallows to witness it as they used to crowd to see thieves broken on the wheel and harlots whipped through the streets at the carts tail.
Copyright © 1948 by George Bernard Shaw. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June, 1948; Capital Punishment