on 14 January 2010
I can honestly describe this as a book that changed my life, although perhaps not in quite the manner that might be expected. Prior to reading this book I felt passionately hostile towards capital punishment in America. It seemed to me to be the ultimate abberation and hypocracy that the country that prided itself as a champion of freedom could do this to its citizens. I felt sympathy for the plight of at least some of those who found themselves accused of murder (rightly or wrongly) and who were facing the death penalty; and deep hatred, distrust, and animosity towards those who supported this cruel and inhumane practice.
At the same time I was dimly aware that my attitude was at least a little unbalanced. I knew that there were many ordinary folk in America, the UK and elsewhere who supported the death penalty, and I knew that it was unhealthy and unbalanced for me to be hating them so much on account of this....
From the outset this book expresses understanding and compassion for the families of murder victims who may support the application of the death penalty to the person who (allegedly) murdered their loved one. The authors acknowledge that they would probably initially feel similarly if someone were to murder one of their friends or relatives, but that on reflection they would take a principled stand against such a course of action.
Rather than villifying those who support the death penalty, the authors seek to understand them and why they think as they do, looking in turn at different groups involved in the death penalty process. It also seeks to understand the point of view of people within each group who were against the death penalty, or ambivalent. The result is an astonishing analysis and insight into the motivations that lie behind these differing points of view. The reader is enabled to develop compassion and understanding for all participants, and to appreciate the emotional toll that the death penalty process has on everyone involved in it. The reader is led to the unavoidable conclusion that the death penalty inflicts suffering not just on the alleged perpertrator, but on everyone involved in the process from the prison wardens to the members of the jury.
One of the many insightful conclusions reached is that support for the death penalty is frequently based more on support for the idea of the death penalty - as an expression of zero tolerance towards evil - rather than towards the reality of applying the death penalty to a particular person. When it comes to the latter people tended to be far more equivocal, especially when the option of life inprisonment was suggested as an alternative option.
One of the many things that this book taught me was the value of trying to understand the point of view of people who think differently to me about these sort of subjects. A few years after reading this book there was a very sad case of a man from Bristol who had become intensely jealous and distrustful of his wife while on holiday with her in Greece and had thrown his son out of a balcony before jumping out himself with his daugter in his arms. His son was killed, but both he and his daugher survived. It transpired that he had a history of mental health problems.
I was working in Bristol at the time and a colleage of mine said he believed in the death penalty and thought the man should be executed. Rather than feeling offended and rushing to contradict him as I might have done before reading this book, I chose to try to gently sound him out on the matter. "It won't really stop that sort of thing from happening" I said. "No it won't" he said, his tone immediately softening.
For me this book was far more than just a book about the death penalty. It was a case study in how it is possible, and vastly preferable, to try to understand other people's points of view when they are different to one's own, rather than condemning them because they happen to see the world in a somewhat different way.