Members Only | December 1, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Barbarous law, bastardized freedom and death by the state

How we rationalize the breach of human rights.

Image courtesy of AFP.
Image courtesy of AFP.

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While the last-minute commutation of one death sentence for Julius Jones is positive, it comes just weeks after the gruesome, grisly death of John Grant. This violence, sanctioned on the behalf of all Americans, should appall each and every citizen, as it appalls so many of our traditional international allies across and around the world.

America is on a list of countries that allow such barbarism. That list includes China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt and Somalia, among others. As per Amnesty International, more than two-thirds of nations have either banned capital punishment by law or by practice, and this includes almost all of Europe, even Russia, leaving Belarus as the lone nation in that region still putting citizens to death.

The death penalty is a punishment all too similar to that Code of Hammurabi of ancient Babylon or that Draconian set of laws from ancient Athens.

The United States sits alone on this issue, as well it should. The death penalty, whether sanctioned federally or by state, is a breach of various human rights standards. It brings dishonor and further discredit on this country, its citizens and its allies. While the nation continues to grapple with its own history of slavery, racism, segregation, various forms of xenophobia, anti-miscegenation, abuse, molestation and forced sterilization, this country’s willingness to end life through legally sanctioned means and methods must also be addressed.

That the United States participates in such vulgar and primitive practices as capital punishment while a nation like Norway rarely even give their feloniously guilty citizens anywhere even near the max potential sentence, which remains 21 years, should force one to ask oneself just precisely why Norway can stick to a sane, humane system of rehabilitation that this nation, the allegedly exceptional one, cannot. 

You will hear cynics of varying agendas try to explain precisely why that is. They often will try to make the case that Norway has some type of magical homogenous society that allows for this, or that its population is simply far smaller, and so abolition is less difficult to work toward. The list of excuses goes on and on. 

It is quite remarkable that many of the critics of abolition are, generally speaking, usually the most verbose proponents of America’s own exceptional ability to accomplish any and everything that it wishes to. One even suspects that their cynicism isn’t genuine at all, and that they know the truth of the matter as well as I myself do.

Many of the critics of abolition are, generally speaking, usually the most verbose proponents of America’s own exceptional ability to accomplish any and everything.

The United States can, indeed, accomplish this all if it wants to. This country, with its wealth, indomitable spirit and relentless desire for innovation, could break free of not only the chains of legal, federal or state-sanctioned retribution, but the greater prison-industrial system that protects and safeguards it. These voices, to put it more plainly, do not doubt America can change itself if it wants to. Instead, they sincerely and fearfully doubt the positivity of any such innovation. 

As so often occurs in the reactionary thought pattern, the concept of freedom has, here too, been bastardized to a certain degree. 

In America, as in other capital nations, freedom often implies the frequent theoretical ability to attain something, should one meet certain monetary or qualitative criteria. It does not necessarily imply a fundamental, widespread availability, so much as a theoretical potential that might be achieved or acquired, or just as well might not be. One has the freedom to get the best healthcare, if one can afford it, and if one cannot, then one is equally free to die without care, or else become free to live under extreme debt for the foreseeable future. 


Regarding the death penalty, however, the freedom of the state has extended even so far as to strip the very existence away from a person who has perhaps done the same to another. Not only is it cruel and unusual, as well as barbaric. It is inefficient in reducing or dissuading crime and disproportionately used on poor persons of color too. 

In its very conceptual makeup, it is a punishment all too similar to that Code of Hammurabi of ancient Babylon, or that Draconian set of laws from Athens of the Greek Archaic Period. It is difficult to reconcile with all of the other innovations that this nation, and our humanity, has been able to realize over these last several decades.

This nation has grappled with this hypocrisy of spirit before, as when the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in the landmark 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia that saw the death penalty completely banned in this country until the 1976 case of Gregg v. Georgia. It will have to do so again. While it is unlikely any type of blanket federal-state ban on capital punishment will occur thanks to the Supreme Court in the years to come, a federal moratorium of like-minded administrations could achieve a similar effect. 

One has the freedom to get the best healthcare, if one can afford it, and if one cannot, then one is equally free to die without care, or else become free to live under extreme debt for the foreseeable future.

As for the states, it is sadly a matter of time, progress and further education and liberation from the idea that death is any real justice for death or the dead. Some states continue to make progress on this front, like Virginia and Colorado, while others, like Oklahoma, continue to disregard human life. The truth is there can be no real justice for some crimes. While ending the life of a murderer might relieve on a very visceral level, it does not bring the deceased loved one back from the grave. And killing those responsible, as Cicero said so many years ago, is in our age not morally correct, even in retribution for death, and even when rationalized as a positive boon for society. 

The sorrow that we feel when someone we love is killed or severely wronged is very real, terrible and powerful. Yet we cannot allow for it to rule our minds or govern our reactions. We cannot allow for barbarism to turn us into barbarians thirsty for vengeance. 

Trent R. Nelson is a historian and political and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributor to Liberal Currents. Follow him @TRichard_Nelson.


  1. Bern on December 6, 2021 at 7:26 pm

    I’ve always been struck by this contradiction at the center of criminal law:
    • As a former peace officer I understand that once a suspect is in custody the state is legally bound to protect the public at large from the suspect, and protect the suspect from the public at large (as well as anyone else who might harm the suspect while in custody of the state). This even if there might be some potential danger to the officers of the state in that first moment of subduing and controlling the suspect, and subsequently in transport. That legal liability to protect the suspect continues through all phases of the legal process – the state is presumed competent to take care of its incarcerated charges.
    • Once the suspect is convicted and sentenced to death, suddenly the state has assumed an entirely different position – that of destroyer of its incarcerated charge. I cannot find any convincing reason for this. If I as an individual officer am expected to keep a suspect alive during and after what might be a significantly dangerous incident, why can the state, having thoroughly separated the suspect from society and having at its disposal the means and wherewithal to hold that suspect safely for a lifetime, instead decide that “oh, YOU couldn’t kill him earlier, but WE can kill him now”?
    It’s just bizarre. And NO I am not advocating for cops to have the right and/or responsibility just to kill people already in custody – I’m completely in agreement with Trent. Capital punishment is just the state further messing with the minds of its citizens.

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