Mon, Dec 09, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Public opinion outweighing facts

By Herbert Hanreich

In the interview, the official, in a quite endearing manner, said that a change to the capital punishment policy would require a public consensus, which for the time being is not the case: Prevailing “social value[s], cultural views, public opinion and a [not yet developed] mature understanding of the rule of law” are factors which speak in favor of retaining capital punishment at present. She said that most people — the “public opinion” — believe that capital punishment has a deterrent effect on criminal behavior and satisfies the demand for retribution. National judicial policies, subsequently, have to take these factors into account.

That is politics. However, in the same interview, she said that it was far from clear whether capital punishment worked as an effective deterrent.

The US National Research Council of the National Academies reported last year that, as the New York Times of April 27 last year said: “All of the research about deterrence and the death penalty done in the past generation ... should be ignored.”

Those studies, the council’s report said, are “not informative about whether capital punishment increases, decreases or has no effect on homicide rates.”

In short: There is no reason to believe that capital punishment works as a deterrent.

This conclusion is not breaking news; many eminent experts have supported the idea for decades.

Apparently, the huge majority of Taiwanese have the wrong perception on major aspects of this important matter, including the effects of deterrence and the problematic nature of retribution. Many people have apparently never been confronted with the thought that if killing is wrong (as most advocates of capital punishment claim), then killing on behalf of the state must be equally wrong.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the father of modern criminology, Cesare Beccaria, made the point when he wrote: “Is it not absurd, that the laws, which detest and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves?”

Education must enter the stage. During the ICRT interview, the ministry official stressed the importance of education for changing the minds of the majority.

What kind of education is the government proposing if even its top officials admit that they simply follow the majority, legitimizing this intellectually lazy act of assimilation as “respect for the local culture” instead of confronting it with facts and views which may be politically uncomfortable because they contradict the “wisdom” of the masses? Where is political leadership? Where is the government?

Culture can be poisonous, especially when people care more about it than truth. The vast majority has a “cultural” view of capital punishment.

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