Responding to the killing of 11 people today at a Pittsburgh synagogue, President Trump called it a “wicked act of mass murder” and called for expanded use of the “death penalty” for such mass killers. He said the death penalty should be carried out “much quicker,” without the ten years of “legal wrangling” that the death penalty typically takes now, due to court rulings that prevent speedy application of the death penalty.
The death penalty saves lives by deterring murder, as several studies have found. As the Associated Press noted in 2007, “Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).” The death penalty also prevents murderers from killing more people while in prison. A murderer already serving a life sentence has nothing to lose from killing his cellmate if there is no death penalty. For example, serial killer Darren Witmer killed over and over again due to the lack of an effective death penalty in his state: He “killed two senior citizens, got locked up,” killed his cellmate, and then “tried to extort money” from a 75-year old widow. He had nothing to lose from committing additional crimes.
But the courts have made it very hard to impose the death penalty, much less do so quickly, and death sentences have been falling for years. Congress could make it quicker to carry out some death sentences by revising laws such as the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. But many obstacles to wider use of the death penalty are the result of constitutional rulings by the Supreme Court or state supreme courts that Congress is powerless to change. Congress can only change statutes, not the Constitution.
Moreover, some legislators naively listen to criminologists when it comes to crime, without realizing how left-wing most of them are. Criminologists are overwhelmingly liberal Democrats, and thus oppose the death penalty, even if it does save lives. Rather than taking the life of a guilty criminal — which they view as “state-sponsored murder” — they would rather focus on the “root causes” of crime. David Baldus, the most frequently cited researcher opposed to the death penalty, once admitted that he would oppose the death penalty no matter how many innocent lives it saved.
Unfortunately, there is little we can do in the short run about many “root causes” of crime, such as family breakdown. The government cannot force people not to have children out of wedlock, even though both crime and misbehavior in general are strongly linked to coming from a broken home.
Opposition to the death penalty is often rooted in the notion that if it is wrong for a murderer to kill someone, it is equally wrong for the government to kill someone (even a murderer). But this argument makes little sense as to murderers. Penalties are supposed to be proportional to the crime that was committed. Punishments are often similar to the crime, to fit the crime. Thus, it is appropriate to punish the taking of money (theft) with taking of money (a fine imposed on the thief). Similarly, it is appropriate to punish the taking of liberty (a kidnapping) with the taking of liberty (the imprisonment of the kidnapper). And it is proper to punish the premeditated taking of life (a murder) with the taking of life (an execution). The more serious the crime, the harsher the penalty needs to be.
The death penalty is thus proper because it is proportional to the offense. It is simple justice in many cases, not state-sanctioned murder. To allow a serial killer to live after he slowly tortures to death multiple victims is a deep injustice to those victims.
Today’s shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue reflect a disturbing rise in antisemitism. Anti-semitism has increased somewhat in the United States, and far more in Europe, such as in France and England. As we noted earlier, Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of England’s Labour Party, has a good chance of being England’s next Prime Minister, despite being an anti-Semite and a defender of totalitarian foreign dictatorships. As The Atlantic reports, Britain’s Labour Party is standing by him, despite “revelations that Corbyn had likened Israel to the Nazis, and that he had attended a controversial wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of a terrorist behind the massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich.” Corbyn has a history of “openly singling out Britain’s Jews … for in his view not being British enough.”