Public opinion outweighing facts

By Herbert Hanreich  / 

Mon, Dec 09, 2013 - Page 8

Whenever debating the pros and cons of capital punishment, the situation is always the same: Nearly all students favor the use of capital punishment, arguing that its abolition would result in social chaos. Furthermore, it would not meet the fair and just demand of the bereaved for revenge on the basis of an eye for an eye. Scrutiny of their arguments reveals that they are hardly based on any sound information, and instead blindly reproduce what public opinion and the government says.

When the students are confronted with facts and different opinions, quite a few of them reconsider their position. Some of them even change their minds. Evidently, serious education must go against public opinion in case the latter is misled, and governments should demonstrate best practice in this aspect.

Deterrence and retribution are deemed to be convincing reasons why capital punishment should be retained. The problem is that deterrents do not work, and retribution founded on an eye-for-an-eye model is a criminological concept of the past. Students are not alone in their opinions; they just mirror the mindset of the huge majority of Taiwanese. A recent government poll showed that more than 85 percent of Taiwanese favor capital punishment, obviously on the basis of similar arguments. The real figure is probably even higher.

The international trend points in the other direction: The number of countries that have the death penalty has dropped by nearly 50 percent over the past 15 years. By 1994, 55 nations had abolished the death penalty; last year, Latvia was the 97th country to do so. The trend among US states is similar. And, surprisingly, a UN General Assembly resolution calling upon states to suspend executions with a view to completely abolishing them was passed in 2007. There are only a very few countries in a reversed trend.

Most retentionist nations are not democracies, the US being a remarkable exception. Those having executed the most people last year are China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the US. China, which most likely executes more people than the rest of the world, keeps the number of its executions a secret. One may wonder why.

We know of corrupt hospital administrations which, in cooperation with corrupt judges with an insatiable appetite for handing out death sentences, sell forcefully “donated” organs taken from executed prisoners for large profits, quite often to Taiwanese recipients. The high number of executions creates business for China.

Taiwan is a retentionist country. Over the past two years, Taiwan has executed 12 people. The present administration’s policy is to reduce the use of the death penalty and to gradually move toward its abolition, indirectly acknowledging people’s right to life.

The government is proud of its past human-rights record, with good reason. However, the handling of capital punishment cannot be included in this record: A panel of international experts, invited by the administration last spring, criticized the nation for having violated provisions of the international human rights documents it ratified. The criticism refers to the 12 executions. In all these cases the convicts were put to death without having had the chance to exhaust all possible legal means — as stipulated in those documents — to avoid execution.

In a remarkable interview on ICRT’s Taiwan Talk in September last year, a representative of the Ministry of Justice explained why the nation is not ready to abolish capital punishment in the near future. The interview was remarkable because it demonstrated the government’s deplorable lack of intention and maybe also its ability to pursue goals that go beyond the sheer reproduction of present cultural, often premodern values; it also demonstrated the populism and the “will to assimilation” to common trends and realities, for which the present administration has a well-known reputation.

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.

This is so because, among other reasons, local politicians do not dare to confront the public with uncomfortable truths and instead choose to bumble through a world it only administers.

This is a global phenomenon. Seeking re-election, such populist politicians play the “culture card,” hiding behind it like cowards when (not) making relevant decisions. They go with the flow, and servants follow their masters.

When the interviewer suggested that in the past politicians elsewhere showed more courage when abolishing capital punishment despite a disagreeing majority, the ministry official simply reiterated the standard answer she had given earlier, saying that the local culture preferred to keep the death penalty.

The problems, obviously, are the local culture and education.

Herbert Hanreich is an assistant professor at I-Shou University in Greater Kaohsiung.