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From Capital Punishment to Guns, Old Fears Weigh Like a Nightmare on Today’s Debate

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Stephen John Hartnett (author of Executing Democracy): The roots of today’s debate about capital punishment, prisons and guns goes back to pre-civil war religious ideas that slaves must be terrorized and God must be appeased.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

The current debate about gun control, the effectiveness of the war on drugs, much, in fact, of the big debates that take place throughout American culture have their roots in pre-Civil War debates about execution. So says author Stephen John Hartnett, who’s the author of the book Executing Democracy: Capital Punishment and the Making of America. Here’s a couple of quotes from Executing Democracy.

In the post-revolutionary period, Robert Annan argued in favor of hangings, largely on the grounds that abolishing the gallows, quote, would introduce universal anarchy and ruin. From this perspective, the gallows stands as a defense mechanism against not only crime, but revolution more broadly. Snapping necks is an antidote to too damn much democracy.

Further down, Hartnett writes: in each case, it was easier to condemn the individual sinner than to address the larger questions of economic inequality, political disenfranchisement, gender and racial oppression, national prejudice, or inexplicable human folly that left such criminals in the desperate conditions that led to their crimes.

Now joining us from Denver is Stephen John Hartnett. He’s a professor and chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado, Denver, and author of the book, as I said, Executing Democracy: Capital Punishment and the Making of America.

Thanks very much for joining us, Stephen.


Jay: Now, it seems the sort of objective scientific data on executing people seems to make it clear there is no evidence that it deters people from murdering each other. Yet the argument continues on—the pro-execution argument continues. So it really seems it doesn’t have that much to do with the evidence about deterring things. It has to do with something deeper. And what is that?

Hartnett: Well, first let’s just reaffirm your first part of your question, that executing people has absolutely nothing to do with deterrence. We really need to keep emphasizing that simple point. It has nothing to do with stopping crime. So you’re right about that.

What does it have to do with is prolonging longstanding national prejudices about race, class, national others, and so on. So it’s a kind of psychological defense mechanism that really has nothing to do with the facts about crime.

Jay: Now, in the book, you talk about much of the roots of capital punishment in America have to do with the slave society and the defense of the slave system.

Hartnett: That’s exactly right. I argue, and especially in Volume 1, that the death penalty historically was part of the arsenal of violence used both to repress slaves in the South and to intimidate the opponents to slavery in the North. And so it’s interesting to think that those Americans who supported the death penalty have always also been at war with free speech.

Jay: There’s a kind of rationality, if you want, of sorts, you could say macabre nationality, but it makes sense that if you’re slave owners, you want to terrorize slaves, and, you know, probably the best way to terrorize people is to kill some of them. So, I mean, there’s some, you could say, evidence that might have worked. But, as I said, as we go forward, there doesn’t seem to be a rationality to it. But why does it continue? So—’cause even at the time of slave society, pre-Civil War, there was a big movement to abolish capital punishment. Why does it continue despite all evidence?

Hartnett: Well, that’s a really complicated question, Paul. And first it’s important to note that the kind of Machiavellian rationality of the death penalty didn’t even work back in the day. The slave owners thought that if they threatened to whip and tar and feather and execute slaves, it would make them comply. And of course it didn’t. All it did was teach the slaves that violence is how you solve political solutions. So even the Machiavellian rationality was clearly wrong in its implementation.

But despite the fact that we know that, the death penalty has continued on up into the 21st century. And, again, I think it has done so not because it deters crime, not because it’s a rational response to society’s problems, but because it satisfies, as Robert Annan said in the first passage you read, it satisfies the psychological need to feel like we’re doing something in the face of tragedy.

Jay: Now, one of the thesis of your book is that the roots of this ideology is framed in sort of religious dogma, as in the 16th century and before just about everything was. But if you executed someone, it wasn’t just meant to deter crime; it was also meant to send that person to Hell. You were acting in the name of God.

Hartnett: That’s right.

Jay: But in your book, you talk about how that outlook starts to bump up against modernity in the United States.

Hartnett: Right. And the thing that’s really hard to kind of grasp about American history is that up until the Civil War, this was a profoundly religious society. And certainly up until the 1830s and ’40s, it was largely a Calvinist society. And in the Calvinist worldview, anyone who sinned was sinning not only against society’s laws but against God’s laws. And so executing criminals was one way of placating God. You literally did not want God to unleash his terrible destruction upon the earth if he thought you weren’t complying with his commandments. And so executions were considered both a legal response to crime, but also a way of satisfying an angry god.

Jay: And as I—in the quote I referred to in the introduction, you talk about this fear of the world spinning out of control, a sense of anarchy. But there’s a real political character to this fear, a fear of rebellion, of a rising, I guess, first of all, rising of slaves, but then after slave society, you know, the rising of oppressed people. But that’s always equated to anarchy and society collapsing and falling apart. And if you don’t have execution—and take it forward to the debate today, if you don’t have guns and you don’t have this war on drugs and you don’t have prisons with big populations, again, of people whose forebears were slaves, then the society’s going to completely fall apart at the seams.

Hartnett: Yeah. And part of what the books chronicle is that we’ve had this longstanding mythology of Americans’ love of democracy, freedom, liberty, equality, justice. And, in fact, all of those terms have always been not only debated but hotly opposed by large segments of the population. And so whether it’s Robert Annan, a Calvinist minister, or whether it’s, say, George Washington, who was not at all a fan of what we would today call democracy, you’ve always had these elites afraid of either slave uprisings or the immigrant problems caused by the Irish coming in, what would happen when the church’s authority declined in the face of secular humanism. And so, literally every generation of Americans, there’s been some of us who cheer the coming of democracy, but there’ve been many more who feared the coming of democracy. And for those who fear democracy, the death penalty is part of the grab bag, again, of weapons, part of the arsenal of violence that could be used to put the lid on democracy.

Jay: And you talk about a historical hatred of the working class. I mean, I think we forget that the American elite is—you know, really was part of the British elite and had shared the values and outlook. And the British enslaved the Irish long before Africans were enslaved in the United States, and this ability to hate and enslave white workers was very, very imbued in this class as well.

Hartnett: Yeah. And, in fact, if you go back and you look at the data about early American history, the working class was made of not only millions of slaves in the South, but millions of indentured Irish servants in the North. And this was obviously—these were conditions that did not make for a happy working class. And so labor relations were incredibly volatile and incredibly violent. And you’re right, Paul, to point out that the kind of capitalist elite of today lived in great fear of what would happen if the masses rose up.

Jay: Now, when we look at the gun debate now, the prison debate, the drug debate, and of course the execution debate, how much is this still about race?

Hartnett: I think race is one of the driving factors, Paul. Fear of slave rebellions is what drove the development of Southern culture before the Civil War. Fear of what would happen when freed slaves came north is one of the things that led to the production of the whole Reconstruction society. Fear of what would happen after the rights achieved in the Civil Rights movement are directly what led to the construction of the prison-industrial complex as we know it today. So, literally every generation of Americans have instituted some kind of social policy to give a kind of institutional weight to their fear of African Americans, their fear of Chicanos and Latinos whose land we stole in 1848.

Jay: And there’s another part to the fear, too, which in a sense has, I think, some legitimacy to it, which is, you know, you live in these societies that have been kind of stable for a long time, and there’s some sense of order, some sense of morality, you could say. Even in slave society, of course, it was amoral when it came to the slaves, but there was some sense of some right and wrong, of ethics, of some code, of course, white to whites. And when the society starts to fall apart—and even today, where rural life, you know, in rural life, at least imagined rural life, there’s sort of, I think, a—where—what is idealization of American rural life, but still, you know, there’s this sense that in decades past there was more norms, there was more stability, people were more civil to each other, and they look at the cities and they see the cities as these crazy things they don’t understand and all these people who they don’t understand where they’re coming from, and they look at mass culture and they see a kind of lack of morality in the mass culture, and I think with some legitimacy that critique, and they go—you know, these old ideas are there. They don’t know what else to grasp on to. And the old ideas are you need order, and order comes from force.

Hartnett: Yeah, and I like your line there, Paul, that they don’t know what else to grasp on to. So when the Industrial Revolution, for example, starts to fracture a 1,000-year-old rural culture, a lot of Americans don’t know how to respond, and so they retreat to nostalgia, they retreat to some idealized social order that of course never existed. But then they think that capital punishment will somehow help us return to that idealized order. And so a key part of supporters of capital punishment is they always have in the back of their mind this nostalgic sense that if we just killed enough criminals, we’d get back to this idealized life of harmony, of order, of good morals, of good manners. And of course that society never existed in the first place.

Jay: Now, one of the points you make in your book I thought was very interesting was that it was the Industrial Revolution, it was mass production and the discipline of having to go to work, you know, eight, nine, ten hours every day and work at an assembly line where you had to do a very disciplined thing actually started to deal with some of the disorder and violence in the society. And, of course, that ran up against something at the end of the Civil War. I saw a quote from Abraham Lincoln where he said the biggest threat to the United States following the war is going to be alcoholism and the violence associated with alcoholism.

Hartnett: Yeah. I mean, the Industrial Revolution felt to many Americans like a catastrophe. The farm systems were breaking down. Cultures based around bartering and local production were breaking down. The cities were exploding. And they didn’t really have kind of urban demographics and urban zoning like we do today, and so the cities were chaotic. The cities were full of immigrants, full of runaway slaves, full of soldiers hopped up on morphine. As President Lincoln said in this quote you just read, there was a great alcoholism rate. It was just incredible.

So the cities were rough and tumble. The cities were very, very hard, very rough-edged. And there were many Americans who thought the way we make the cities more humane and more enlightened is we build public schools, we build public hospitals, we build public parks, we give education to the working class. Now, another faction said, no, we need to snap some necks and build some prisons. And we still have that divide in America today between those who think they can kill their way to justice and those who think that the only way you build a just society is by creating the conditions of a more fully imagined democracy.

Jay: And you can see it. The evidence is, I think, in front of people’s eyes if they want to see it. In the areas, cities, places where there’s modern production, modern industrial work, and jobs, people have a secure income, they’re not, you know, losing sleep every night about losing their homes, you have a relatively stable, safe place. Crime is not very high. And it’s no brain surgery rocket science to see that it’s in urban centers where there’s very, very high unemployment, desperate poverty that you have high crime. So if you want to deal with it, it’s not more prisons and more guns. It’s as you say. It’s more schools and more jobs.

Hartnett: That’s right, Paul. And, really, the simplest way to think of this is that crime is an index of unhappiness. And whenever you have a culture driven by racial injustice, lack of jobs, lack of education, lack of hope, then you’re going to have crime. And the simple question is: do you then snap the necks of young men, assuming that that will somehow increase the happiness index in your society? Obviously, that won’t work. Or could you just simply do the reasonable thing, which is to step back and say, what do we need to do to raise the standard of hope in our violent cities? And, of course, that means schools, hospitals, better roadways, better parks, better family counseling. We need to make the social safety net effective enough so that young men don’t think joining gangs is a rational alternative.

Jay: Now, one sees this normally as sort of a Republican-Democratic debate. But actually there’s lots of Democratic parties—parties meaning at state levels and even at the national level—lots of the Democratic Party is not anti-execution. There’s lots of pro capital punishment people in the Democratic Party, and there’s been lots of governors of states run by Democrats that are in on executing people, too.

Hartnett: Yeah. And, you know, a couple of the obvious examples are Bill Clinton taking time out of his presidential campaign to go back to Arkansas so he could execute a mentally retarded prisoner, thinking that that gesture of being hard on crime would win him southern votes. Another example, flip side of that, is that you now have the state of California obviously going broke—it’s been broke for decades now—and the Republicans in California are finally realizing they need to reduce the prison system. So both parties can look—or can land on both sides of these issues.

My position would be to say that both parties, however, have largely cornered the market on cowardice, because neither party is doing the obvious thing of decreasing the prison population, ending capital punishment, and folding our resources back into schools. That’s the root problem.

Jay: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Stephen.

Hartnett: Thanks for having me, Paul.

Jay: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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