Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mencken: "The Penalty of Death"


Is Mencken arguing for or against capital punishment?


"The Penalty of Death" (1926)



by H.L. Mencken


Of the arguments against capital punishment that issue from uplifters, two are commonly heard most often, to wit:


1. That hanging a man (or frying him or gassing him) is a dreadful business, degrading to those who have to do it and revolting to those who have to witness it.


2. That it is useless, for it does not deter others from the same crime.


The first of these arguments, it seems to me, is plainly too weak to need serious refutation3. All it says, in brief, is that the work of the hangman is unpleasant. Granted. But suppose it is? It may be quite necessary to society for all that. There are, indeed, many other jobs that are unpleasant, and yet no one thinks of abolishing them--that of the plumber, that of the soldier, that of the garbage-man, that of the priest hearing confessions, that of the sand-hog, and so on. Moreover, what evidence is there that any actual hangman complains of his work? I have heard none. On the contrary, I have known many who delighted in their ancient art, and practiced it proudly.


In the second argument of the abolitionists there is rather more force, but even here, I believe, the ground under them is shaky. Their fundamental error consists in assuming that the whole aim of punishing criminals is to deter other (potential) criminals--that we hang or electrocute A simply in order to so alarm B that he will not kill C. This, I believe, is an assumption which confuses a part with the whole. Deterrence, obviously, is one of the aims of punishment, but it is surely not the only one. On the contrary, there are at least half a dozen, and some are probably quite as important. At least one of them, practically considered, is more important. Commonly, it is described as revenge, but revenge is really not the word for it. I borrow a better term from the late Aristotle: katharsis. Katharsis, so used, means a salubrious discharge of emotions, a healthy letting off of steam. A school-boy, disliking his teacher, deposits a tack upon the pedagogical chair; the teacher jumps and the boy laughs. This is katharsis. What I contend is that one of the prime objects of all judicial punishments is to afford the same grateful relief (a) to the immediate victims of the criminal punished, and (b) to the general body of moral and timorous men.


These persons, and particularly the first group, are concerned only indirectly with deterring other criminals. The thing they crave primarily is the satisfaction of seeing the criminal actually before them suffer as he made them suffer. What they want is the peace of mind that goes with the feeling that accounts are squared. Until they get that satisfaction they are in a state of emotional tension, and hence unhappy. The instant they get it they are comfortable. I do not argue that this yearning is noble; I simply argue that it is almost universal among human beings. In the face of injuries that are unimportant and can be borne without damage it may yield to higher impulses; that is to say, it may yield to what is called Christian charity. But when the injury is serious Christianity is adjourned, and even saints reach for their sidearms. It is plainly asking too much of human nature to expect it to conquer so natural an impulse. A keeps a store and has a bookkeeper, B. B steals $700, employs it in playing at dice or bingo, and is cleaned out. What is A to do? Let B go? If he does so he will be unable to sleep at night. The sense of injury, of injustice, of frustration will haunt him like pruritus. So he turns B over to the police, and they hustle B to prison. Thereafter A can sleep. More, he has pleasant dreams. He pictures B chained to the wall of a dungeon a hundred feet underground, devoured by rats and scorpions. It is so agreeable that it makes him forget his $700. He has got his katharsis.


The same thing precisely takes place on a larger scale when there is a crime which destroys a whole community’s sense of security. Every law-abiding citizen feels menaced and frustrated until the criminals have been struck down--until the communal capacity to get even with them, and more than even, has been dramatically demonstrated. Here, manifestly, the business of deterring others is no more than an afterthought. The main thing is to destroy the concrete scoundrels whose act has alarmed everyone, and thus made everyone unhappy. Until they are brought to book that unhappiness continues; when the law has been executed upon them there is a sigh of relief. In other words, there is katharsis.


I know of no public demand for the death penalty for ordinary crimes, even for ordinary homicides. Its infliction would shock all men of normal decency of feeling. But for crimes involving the deliberate and inexcusable taking of human life, by men openly defiant of all civilized order--for such crimes it seems, to nine men out of ten, a just and proper punishment. Any lesser penalty leaves them feeling that the criminal has got the better of society--that he is free to add insult to injury by laughing. That feeling can be dissipated only by a recourse to katharsis, the invention of the aforesaid Aristotle. It is more effectively and economically achieved, as human nature now is, by wafting the criminal to realms of bliss.


The real objection to capital punishment doesn’t lie against the actual extermination of the condemned, but against our brutal American habit of putting it off so long. After all, every one of us must die soon or late, and a murderer, it must be assumed, is one who makes that sad fact the cornerstone of his metaphysic. But it is one thing to die, and quite another thing to lie for long months and even years under the shadow of death. No sane man would choose such a finish. All of us, despite the Prayer Book, long for a swift and unexpected end. Unhappily, a murderer, under the irrational American system, is tortured for what, to him, must seem a whole series of eternities. For months on end he sits in prison while his lawyers carry on their idiotic buffoonery with writs, injunctions, mandamuses, and appeals. In order to get his money (or that of his friends) they have to feed him with hope. Now and then, by the imbecility of a judge or some trick of juridic science, they actually justify it. But let us say that, his money all gone, they finally throw up their hands. Their client is now ready for the rope or the chair. But he must still wait for months before it fetches him.


That wait, I believe, is horribly cruel. I have seen more than one man sitting in the death-house, and I don’t want to see any more. Worse, it is wholly useless. Why should he wait at all? Why not hang him the day after the last court dissipates his last hope? Why torture him as not even cannibals would torture their victims? The common answer is that he must have time to make his peace with God. But how long does that take? It may be accomplished, I believe, in two hours quite as comfortably as in two years. There are, indeed, no temporal limitations upon God. He could forgive a whole herd of murderers in a millionth of a second. More, it has been done.


"The Penalty of Death" was first published in Prejudices: Fifth Series by H.L. Mencken, 1926.

7 comments:

Elvin said...

Elvin Ames
Eng 102 (Honors)
Prof: Rebecca Williams
27 January 2010
Mencken/ The Penalty of Death

Mencken is against the death penalty at least the way it is done in America. He points it out in his sarcastic way on page 392 paragraph 6. “I know of no public demand for the death penalty for ordinary crimes, even for ordinary homicides.” This is being cynical. There is no such this as an ordinary homicide. Then he goes on…But for crimes involving the deliberate and inexcusable taking of human life (This means the same this as homicide), by men openly defiant of all civilized order – for such crimes it seems, to nine men out of ten , a just and proper punishment. He agrees with the fact that the death penalty is degrading to those who do it, and I say this because he is not being genuine when he says, “I have known hang men who delighted in their ancient art.” It is highly unlikely that he knew hangmen who expressed their delight for hanging people. He also makes fun of the reason given by bleeding heart liberals by comparing the job of a hangman to that of a priest having to listen to people’s confessions in paragraph 2.
By arguing against the ‘Up lifters’ point of view he is pointing out an even more troubling argument against the death penalty, that is society uses it to make them selves feel better and sleep soundly at night. Another abuse of the death penalty in the eyes of Mencken is that it is also used for ‘Katharsis’ (purging human emotions) instead of what it’s true intention should be that of punishing the killer. He even pokes fun at Christians who call for charity by saying, “But when the injury is serious Christianity is adjourned, and even saints reach for their sidearms.” The tone in his writing is very sarcastic to me.
He also talks about the irrational American system of justice where a persons chancesto appeal his case runs out when his money does in paragraph 7. “…His money all gone, they (attorneys) finally throw up their hands. Their client is now ready for the rope or the chair.”
In the same brutal & irrational American system of capital punishment Mencken claims that if your going to execute the person then get it over with because the punishment of waiting in a cell knowing you are slated to die is cruel and unnecessary punishment, “Why torture him as not even cannibals would torture their victims?” Mencken has a very cynical way of arguing his point of view to the masses by agreeing with them above the lines, but calling their practice of the death penalty inhumane and more barbaric than cannibals between the lines. “There are, indeed, no temporal limitations upon God. He could forgive a whole herd of murderers in a millionth of a second.” His use of the word herd in describing murderers suggests that he is comparing murderers to livestock being lead to the slaughter. And we the public are the true executioners of these murderers.

Sarah Merrick said...

When Henry Mencken in his essay “The Penalty of Death” told the story of person A getting person B thrown into jail for stealing his $700, I began to question whether he was for or against the death penalty. In the beginning he was clearly arguing the pro-death penalty. He used Aristotle’s term Katharsis to illustrate that humans need to discharge emotions when a crime is committed. Furthermore, he says it provides a sense of satisfaction when one sees those who made them suffer suffer themselves.


But when the story of Person A and Person B shows a glimpse into the dreams of person A’s dream, Mencken says “He pictures B chained to the wall of a dungeon a hundred feet underground, devoured by rats and scorpions,” and that it “makes him forget his $700” (Mencken 391-2), I read sarcasm. This petty and exaggerated sentence does the exact opposite of what I originally thought he was trying to accomplish. It exposes the holes in the argument for the death penalty, by showing the morally rotten side of revenge and katharsis.


He then reveals his true purpose. The essay was not for or against the entire act of the death penalty, but against the way it was carried out. The layers of paperwork, appeals and lawyers that a convicted criminal has to go through after he’s been assigned his punishment just to eventually end up in the chair or at the end of a rope. “The wait,” Mencken believes, “is horribly cruel” (Mencken 392). Instead his end should be directly after it was decided by the court and when is no hope of change, without the extra time to wait.

Sarah Merrick

Rodney Morgenstond said...

Rodney Morgenstond
Eng 102 (honors)
Prof: Rebecca Williams
27 January 2010
Mencken/ The Penalty of Death

The death penalty is currently a “hot” issue. There are people with strong feelings on both sides of the issue, and it doesn’t seem as if it’s going away anytime soon, but it’s definitely not a new issue. In 1926, H.L. Mencken’s “The Penalty of Death,” discussed the issues and the motives behind people’s stance of the death penalty.
He began by stating the 2 prevailing mindsets of the time, “1) That hanging a man (or frying him or gassing him) is a dreadful business, degrading to those who have to do it and revolting to those who have to witness it. 2) That it is useless, for it does not deter others from the same crime.” Afterwards, he attempts to punch holes in these 2 theories. I believe he was quite successful in this attempt.
In the first theory, he points out the fact that the executioner is no reason to disagree with the death penalty. We don’t seem to take people into account who do other “demeaning” and “lesser jobs.” Where is the outrage over the plumber who needs to clean pipes, the man who picks up the garbage, and the soldier who will die needlessly for a cause he may or may not agree with?
In the second, he points out the obvious, that the death penalty will not deter others from the same crime. He further states his position by claiming that people have this belief not because they want justice for a wrongdoing, but instead as a form of katharsis.
Overall, Mencken’s main argument is that people are only interested in seeing other people suffer. He argues that it allows people to sleep better at night to know that vengeance has been exacted as a result of a wrongdoing. Because of this, I came to the conclusion that Mencken is against the death penalty. Due to the rebuking tone of this article

Miryan said...

Miryan Salcedo
Eng 102
Proffesor Williams
27 January 2010


"The Penalty of Death"

Is the author for or against death penalty?



M.L Mencken had a big reasonable criteria when he expressed his ideas and thoughts. Personally, he das a good sense and tone that increases the chance to convince, or persuade others or just make people minds think about. I had the opportunity to read Mencken Writing "The Death Of Penalty", where he is arguing in favor of it.
As we know when we are imposed to make any persuasive letter, almost all the time we have to be 100% sure about our choice which is the final decision, because in this way we can make a strong convincing letter. According to Mencken's sense and the way how he express his thoughts and emotions, I could interpret that he is supporting the penalty of death in a certain different way. But also he can is arguing against it, considering the capital punishment in America as "Our Brutal American habit of putting it off so long" as well.
It sounds weird right? How does a person can be against of or in favor of something at the same time? That is why I stated above-the certain different way. To support my reasoning, let me explain it by using his own essay‘s ideas about it. For instance, Mencken began his essay rejecting the uplifters arguments, he said that those arguments are weak to need serious refutation, also he started justifying the penalty of death by marking a couple of punishment aims, such as: Deterrence and Revenge( which he gives a Aristotle term "katharsis")However, in paragraph 7, he showed an objection against the capital punishment, I know it because his tone and expression shifted from concerns of the victims of crime to concern for the prisoners whose are awaiting for the last step (their execution) Mencken’s statements in this paragraph make him improve and clarify his point. He tries to explain that penalized should not be tortured or made them suffer, because the already have marked their final destinations. In this paragraph, he makes clarified that the capital punishment manners are inhuman and cruel.
To conclude this, I strongly agree with the idealizations and opinions of Mencken. Comparisons and examples that makes, which are easy to interpret because these happen common in our daily lives. He also relates and compares the religion (God) and all decisions and acts made by humans. For example: The goodness of God is conceivable, instead of waiting days, months or years to execute someone, the only delay seconds to forgive, in contrast, humans do the opposite by claiming revenge(American Brutal Habit). In this writing He also generalizes the causes of crime and how people react in these cases both personally and in the judiciary. He submissive our actions as "satisfactions" that will make us feel better in this case once we see in poor condition who is guilty.

TAUHEED said...

After reading “The Penalty of Death” by H.L. Mencken, several times of course, I believe that he was arguing against capital punishment. His intentions may have been the opposite. But, after a careful review, his position becomes rather obvious. The words he chose to describe the death penalty shows his underlying resentment for this “brutal American habit”.

H.L. Mencken started his essay by laying the foundation for his anti-capital punishment viewpoint. He stated two arguments against capital punishment, but chose to indulge on the second. In his own words, the second argument, that is useless and doesn’t deter others from the same crime, has “force”. He went on to compare capital punishment to catharsis. Anyone familiar with the word should know that the Greeks used this word to describe literary effects or emotions being released after watching a tragedy. One can only conclude that H.L. Mencken viewed the execution of a man as a tragedy.

When H.L. Mencken compared the executioner to a “schoolboy disliking his teacher”, he showed his true feelings toward capital punishment as a whole. The teacher didn’t deserve the schoolboys “revenge”, even if the teacher had previously wronged him. Only someone with the ignorance of a “schoolboy” would enjoy watching someone suffer. Mr. Mencken also stated that he didn’t think “yearning” to see a criminal suffer was “noble”. Catharsis is a purification of the soul. In the words of H.L Mencken, this is “revenge”.

Capital punishment is defined as the execution of a person by judicial process. H.L. Mencken states in his essay “it is one thing to die and quite another thing to lie for long months and even years under the shadow of death”. This statement leads me to believe that he doesn’t agree with the judicial process of capital punishment. One can only conclude that if he doesn’t agree with the means, he couldn’t agree with the end. He even went as far as to call it “torture”. Only in an “irrational American system” could this take place.

To conclude, I would say that H.L. Mencken may have been pro-punishment. But, it is quite obvious, that he is against capital punishment. As he stated in his essay, “not even cannibals would torture their victims”. I believe he was a man of God. He believed that only god should judge men. And, like he stated in his essay, god “could forgive a whole herd of murderers”. TAUHEED GUY

Kathleen said...

Penalty of death has caused many issues in society. It is difficult topic to discuss. There are moral and ethical viewpoints and the rights of humans are being played. Which side would you morally support, the revenge of the victim´s family or the death of the criminal? They seem equal but if we look deeper into the problem. People who establish the punishment try to satisfy the grief of the victim´s family and also the life of the person who is accused of the crime committed. There is also an issue about if it is morally acceptable or not. H.L. Mencken establishes his argument that he is in favor death penalty. That the criminal should not suffer behind bars because either way he was going to die. It is more painful to know that your death has been announced instead of dying instantly without agonizing.
It would be an easy way out solving two problems with one risky solution with the death of the criminal. “After all, every one of us must die soon or late, and a murderer, it must be assumed, is one who makes that sad fact the cornerstone of his metaphysic. But it is one thing to die, and quite another thing to lie for long months and even years under the shadow of death.” It is unjustifiable to torture somebody even if that person has committed the worst crime. We are rational beings. We were created to solve problems. But also nobody has the right to decide whether a person must die or given a second chance. That is not the way to define justice.

Nhat Minh Nguyen said...

Nhat Minh Nguyen
A Penalty of Death’s view of Mencken
What is the punishment when a person makes a crime? There are a lot of punishment types such as: fine ticket, prison, death penalty. Two first types are fine with society because they do not concern to human’s life so they do not make any controversy in community. In the other hand, the last one really is a debating problem between two people who think in two different ways. In Mencken’s essay, the author explains about the meaning of death penalty. With the humor but serious words, he tries to point out the wrong of death penalty.
First, in his opinion, taking a life of a person who made something wrong is revenge, or in other word “katharsis”. After that he uses the example of a student who dislikes his teacher and he tries to find one thing to make fun of him. Is it different from the death penalty? No, it is the same reality although they are two facts. As Mencken states in his essay, the purpose of reality is “to afford the same grateful relief (a) to the immediate victims of the criminal punished, and (b) to the general body of moral and timorous men.” (391). So death penalty is just used because it gives the belief of fair to victims and their family. I think it is like a children’s “thing”. I punch you because you kicked me. And the conflict will never end. Before that, he uses the reason of the people support death penalty “we hand or electrocute A simply in order to so alarm B that he will not kill C”. But in my opinion, the fact is although in some states of this country, they still have death penalty but the murder crime rate does not reduce. And after that the author states that the penalty is useless and it does not make anything better except the people who are satisfied because the murder is killed. In the next paragraph, he continues to state that “everyone of us must die soon or late […] and quite another thing to lie for long months and even years under the shadow of death” (392). So this is clearly that he supports the penalty, but he does not agree with the psychological penalty. When a person is announced to be died, he or she cannot die immediately but has to wait for a long time under the pressure, the prospect of death. For instance, how can a person feel when he knows what he has to face? A death. It is like he stands next to a murder who is pointing the gun into his brain. If we say that murder is immoral, so what should we call the death penalty in this case? It is too.
In conclusion, the opinion of Mencken in his essay about death penalty is impossible. Furthermore, it is immoral and no reason for a person who confronts the death has to live under the dark place of the death for a long time.