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WHO OWNS DEATH? by Robert Jay Lifton


Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions

by Robert Jay Lifton & Greg Mitchell

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-380-97498-3
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Though they tread familiar ground while observing the impact of state-sanctioned violence on society, the co-authors of Hiroshima in America (1995) have nonetheless written a compelling censure of capital punishment in America.

Leaving the titular question open-ended, Lifton and Mitchell seek to discover how, despite moral ambiguity, civic inefficiency, international condemnation, and high psychological costs, capital punishment has “proved so enduring in America.” The answers they provide, though complex, are conclusive. America’s persistence as the only Western nation to apply the death penalty, they conclude, arises from a national need for control of our destiny, harking back to the frontier days. Americans apparently “want to feel that they are in control of evil and have an answer for it.” We suffer from a “habit of violence” and desire for the “sustained polarization of good and evil,” assert the writers. Other, systemic factors contribute to the perpetuation of capital punishment and conspire towards social denial. “The entire system . . . is geared to soften or eliminate the harsh truth of killing,” Lifton and Mitchell argue. By “constantly looking for ever more efficient ways to kill people as a form of respect for their humanity,” Americans make it easier to justify retaining the death penalty. Unlike the recent trend in the anti–death penalty movement, which is to dwell on a flawed justice system prone to errors and social inequity, Lifton and Mitchell focus on the deed itself, arguing it is a brutal, violent act that inflicts great psychological harm on our society. They have admirably achieved the task of standing on moral ground without indulging in preaching or relying on overly emotional testimony. Abolitionists will be grateful to have such a convincing, logic-driven work on their side. Those not sympathetic will find the book’s insight into American culture stimulating.

Convincing and impassioned without being maudlin.