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April 5, 1956
The Current Scene

Capital Punishment

Bertrand Russell's doubts concerning the guilt of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg appeared in our press concurrently with admissions from the socialist sector of the earth that executions had been carried out unjustly. The combination of events turned my thoughts to Capital Punishment, and I felt that I would be less than honest with myself if I did not express my own position on this question.

I think I have always maintained an inplacable position on this matter. I am against any form of Capital Punishment under any circumstances. I consider it one of the most bestial survivals of the darkest ages of mankind, a degraded practice and one wholly unbecoming to civilized people. I know this is put strongly, but murder is murder, an ultimate and irreversible act, and I know of no language too strong to oppose it.

I do not think it deters, and even a casual study of the history of crime will demonstrate that it was precisely at those moments when the largest number of crimes was punishable by death that crime increased, and it will also be found that the lowest incidence of crime, including murder, exists in those countries where Capital Punishment has been abolished. Most reputable criminologists agree that crime, including murder, arises out of a specific set of social circumstances; and they also agree that the pathology of crime is little--if at all--affected by the existence of punishment.

* * *
ANY THOUGHTFUL parent knows that to base the social structure of the home on a system of punishment is to invite chaos and misery--yet most of society today still uses punishment as the major social approach to gross anti-social behavior. In particular, almost all of human society maintains the death penalty as a punishment for treason, and in some cases for acts against the state that fall short of treason. Even the fact that the United States of America created the hard core of its revolutionary army of liberation out of soldiers who had committed treason against the British Crown--by deserting to the cause of the enemy, has not served to make subsequent generations of Americans any more intelligent or discerning on this question; and in all fairness, it must be said that even though the Soviet Union was born out of actions by brave men and women who committed treason to the Czar's government--by overthrowing it--the Soviet Union, like the United States, maintains the death penalty for the act.
* * *
OF COURSE IT IS TRUE and evident that there is a deep qualitative difference between treason toward reaction and treason toward progress. We call the British who deserted to our cause during the revolution patriots, and rightly so, even as the Russians call the Czarist officers who supported them patriots--and I think that decent folk in both countries recognize the infamy of those Spaniards who betrayed and destroyed the Spanish Republic. Treason is a class matter as well as a national matter, and the poor man's patriotism has always been the rich man's treason. But just as no act of treason can undermine a government that has its people's respect and support, so is the accepted punishment of treason a hysterical response to a specific situation. And I cannot see how any government which call itself progressive can long justify the maintenance of Capital Punishment.

Death is too permanent. All the men of good will on earth, rallying to the call that justice be done to the memory of the Rosenbergs, cannot bring them back to life or remove the scars of sorrow from those who loved them. Yes, and we will someday do honor to the seven young men of Martinsville who were put to death with such indecent haste, as a warning to all the Negro people, but we cannot breathe life back into their clay.

And posthumously, the socialist part of mankind can publicly honor the names of good men who died at the hands of bureaucrats, liars and knaves, but is that enough? There has been a great field day of finger pointing and name calling--yet there is only one true honor that can be done to these dead. That is, for all the nations of mankind to take a long step toward the future and to do away once and for all with legal murder. There can be no exception.

* * *
I HAD AN EXPERIENCE once, and I wish that all the men in the high places could share it. With my friends, I was put in prison, but the prison was over-crowded, and so I was separated from them and put into another cell block. It was an open-faced block, and in the tier directly beneath me were three men who had been sentenced to death and were awaiting execution. For 11 nights, I was awakened at one time and another by their anguish, their sobbing, pleading, demanding that they should not be put to death--and perhaps my own mood made me intimate with their torture: Before then, I had hated Capital Punishment; in that time, I swore an oath to myself that I would do what I could to see that this particular barbarism was done away with.

There is a certain type of mentality that reasons via a pair of scales. "Look," these people say, "how many lives are saved by antibiotics, how many less of mankind die of hunger. After all, the death penalty takes only a few." But such reasoning is inherently inhuman; and where human life is concerned, the very factor of humanity makes each particle of it sacred.

* * *
AND FINALLY, there is this very important point for us who are Americans. In our land, the broadest use of the death sentence is as a weapon against the Negro People. It is the legality that has replaced the rope in the hands of the mob--although that is still with us; and as a legalized form of lynching, it has claimed more innocent men than even the rope itself. It is the very existence and acceptance of Capital Punishment that makes it so attractive a weapon for the racist, and its awful finality appears to dull and quiet the conscience of good and sensitive people.

Not much more than a hundred years ago, in Great Britain, a child of nine was hanged for stealing a crust of bread. Is it not conceivable that in the not too distant future, our own methods of punishment will seem as hideous as that appears to us, today?