International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

American vs. European Attitude Towards Prisoners and the Death Penalty

The NYT reports that the United States will seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man accused of the Boston Marathon bombing. The incident was the deadliest attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, and it is notable that one of the last people to be executed by the United States was Tim McVeigh, the terrorist behind the Oklahoma City bombing, back in 2001.

The ICC does not permit the death penalty, and that prohibition has apparently has been a sore point for some survivors and victims.

All of Europe except Belarus, and many U.S. States have abolished the death penalty (for most countries, this occurred relatively recently). The conservativeness of many Americans on this issue also extends to other issues regarding prisoners. I am ashamed of the barbaric prison conditions in America, but I would not support having prisons like they do in Norway, with flat-screen TVs and parklike grounds. Some of the rooms in Norwegian prisons actually look nicer then University of Chicago singles.

This brings up the issue of the “Hague Hilton” and the question of how best to prevent impunity and encourage accountability. If the European attitude continues to hold sway, then the world’s worst criminals may all end up in relatively nice prisons (still prisons, of course)–which is, to me, a disturbing thought. Whether or not you believe in the death penalty, it’s true enough that many of these criminals deserve such a fate. So I am not a believer in showing much kindness to convicted criminals. And while I hate the death penalty on principle, I will admit to being quite conflicted in big cases like that of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the Nazis who were hanged after Nuremberg. There is definitely a certain comfort in knowing that people who commit terrible atrocities, like Tsarnaev or the Nazis, could pay for it with their lives. So despite my own opposition to the death penalty, I can totally understand why people might question whether lifelong imprisonment is truly a just outcome for the very worst kinds of human beings. And I think I can understand that particular criticism of the ICC.


5 responses to “American vs. European Attitude Towards Prisoners and the Death Penalty

  1. palomatraveler January 30, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    I read today aswell regarding the intent of US prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his involvement in the Boston Marathon bombing. Unlike 300 years ago with a focus on peace, today the judicial system in general trends towards more of a focus on punishment.
    I do not think it is wrong to punish people for their actions, I believe punishment is necessary to uphold the rule of law. In regard to the death penalty and the ICC, I think it is fair that the ICC does not permit the death penalty. Should one deem one form of punishment over another as a more just outcome? For victims of atrocities they feel as if harsh punishment is the best form of not necessarily reconciliation but justice. Marc Fucarile who was interviewed and lost his right leg in the Boston Bombing confirmed this mentality, “I think it’s the right decision to go after the death penalty. It shows people that if you are going to terrorize our country, you are going to pay with your life.” The concept of paying for committing a crime is recurrent. The biggest fear of most victims is that the perpetrator will not fully pay for their crime and will “end up living like a king in prison”
    I agree that the “Hague Hilton” does not necessarily satisfy the notion of justice, considering the world’s worst criminals are detained with modern conveniences. However, I am not sure that if the ICC permitted the death penalty it would necessarily help build the legitimacy of the ICC. I am also unsure if victims of the horrible atrocities would feel satisfied that justice has been sought.

  2. kcarp05 January 31, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    After you wrote about almost all of the European countries abolishing the punishment, I was curious about how the rest of the world viewed death as a punishment for crimes. According to Amnesty International, over two-thirds of countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Here is a map that shows the executions and death sentences by country (2012):

    If perpetrators come from these countries that still retain the idea of the death penalty, I can understand why this kind of punishment would be most desirable by the victims. If perpetrators are able to live out the rest of their lives in the ‘Hague Hilton’ and side step the possibility of the death penalty, it seems that justice was not truly met (the thought of perpetrators living better than their victims in prison is absolutely outrageous also).

    Should the ICC adhere to the law and practices of the countries from which the perpetrators come from? I could see such an idea benefiting the victims and their satisfaction for justice, but it could also affect the accountability and legitimacy of the court if conditions are different for every country.

  3. gracen0te5 February 1, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    It is a very complicated dilemma when trying to reconcile the death penalty with pro-life beliefs and exceptional crimes. Even where the federal government has intent to seek the death penalty, it is not uncommon for prosecutors to withdraw the threat of execution later on, and instead support a plea deal calling for life imprisonment. After the marathon bombing, the Boston Globe poll:
    shows that the people of Boston favor a sentence of life without parole than a death sentence when Tsarnaev is convicted.

    From a victim’s standpoint, I can see how death penalty may be considered retribution, but it does not solve crime or bring back the lives that have already been lost. I don’t think people should be subjected to administering or receiving this type of punishment, but at the same time if we eliminate capital punishment, what punishment would be next for truly hardened criminals? What about retribution and a peace of mind for the families? What about people who have no value for human life?

    I find it unfortunate that society is put in the position of having someone commit crimes so heinous that they determine the person must die. Whether it is for protection of society or punishment, it is the act of the person convicted of such crime that they are being put to death.

    I think it is fair that the ICC does not permit the death penalty. There is always the question of absolute guilt; it’s impossible to know with certainty about the guilt of many who have been executed, and we know for a fact that there have been innocent people killed by the state.

    In the instance of mass murders, how many lives can we truly say are saved by death of those truly guilty of exceptional crimes? A lifetime in max-security prison with all freedoms stripped away could even be worse than a relatively quick death. I think more human rights are violated if an accused is sentenced to death than if not.

    I am also interested on whether the ICC should adhere to the law and practices of the countries from which the perpetrators come from. Even though the ICC is not involved in the case of Amanda Knox (an American student convicted by the Italian Court), there are some themes that relate to some of my thoughts around the contentious relationship between the International Criminal Court and national courts.

    This article suggests that when Knox was first convicted of murder, there was outcry in the U.S. that she was wrongfully convicted and that Italy had succumbed to American pressure. The retrial in Florence has renewed questions about the effectiveness of Italy’s justice system then bringing up retrial.

    Do you think that national courts are more likely to succumb to internal and external pressures as well as to media? I could see retrial as an idea benefiting the victims and their satisfaction for justice, but it could also affect the accountability and legitimacy of the court if conditions are different for every country.

  4. Alana Tiemessen February 3, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    This is an excellent dialogue. I do want to clarify a few things…
    1) Yes, there is the pejorative reference to the “Hague Hilton.” But, the accused are only detained there while they are on trial. Once convicted, they are sent to different prisons around the world, including many in Africa (states volunteer for this). I can assure you that many of those convicted by international tribunals are not living out the rest of their days in luxurious conditions.
    2) Contrary to what we would easily assume, many victims of atrocities do not necessarily desire capital punishment as a form of justice for many reasons. One is that they consider no punishment to be proportionate enough to the scale of the crimes. Another reason it that victims desire accountability in many forms that go beyond retribution, toward something more tangible and meaning (reparations, acknowledgement, etc.). Globally, there is very little opposition to the lack of death penalty for sentencing at international tribunals.
    3) What factors should be taken into consideration with punishment. For example, does the scale of crimes matter (in terms of death toll). If that’s the case, can we really compare the crimes of those like Tsarnaev to the Nazi regime? Or the post-election violence to the Rwandan genocide? Or is the intent behind the crimes a more important factor in punishment, regardless of the outcome?

  5. jhgmitch February 4, 2014 at 2:29 am

    Yup, I should have clearly stated that the “Hague Hilton” is just a courthouse jail. I also am guilty of cherry picking with the outlier Norway example. But I believe Norway and likeminded countries provide a sort of “preview” of what ALL the developed countries of Europe (plus Canada?) will look like in our lifetimes. It illustrates the breakneck speed with which progressive western thought has advanced in Europe since the end of the Cold War. In Norway, Sweden, Holland, etc. progressive theory has been implemented to an extent that probably no one even in Europe could have predicted thirty years ago. And I wasn’t the only American who was stunned to hear about European maximum-security prisons that are literally nicer than my high school dormitory… stunned, too, that the very culture of the United States (the military expenditures of which Europeans ridicule but are the very reason Europe is free to pursue its experiment in progressive society) is seen as parochial, if not downright alien, by so many twenty-first century Europeans …I’d better end this Fox News-y rant now which has been totally off-topic.

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