I know that I have fairly negative feelings about the following list of countries: China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. It’s not that I hate them — not at all. But I think a whole lot worse of them than I do, say: Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. I’m sure there are a lot of things that go into this. I associate all of these countries with authoritarian governments, even if Iraq is now technically a democracy. But mostly, they strike was as kind of Old Testament in their outlook on life. This isn’t necessarily fair, but certainly a case can be made.
So I wasn’t terribly pleased when I saw this recent Amnesty International report, Death Sentences and Executions 2013 (pdf). You see, the top five countries for the death penalty are these Abrahamic countries and, of course, the “enlightened” United States of America. It makes me want to break out in song, “Oh, say can you see: all the people we kill?!” But I guess we can take some comfort that we are fifth on the list! For once we aren’t “Number one!” on a list of bad things.
Here is a great graph that Business Insider put together to illustrate the situation, China Executes More People Than The Rest of the World Combined:
There is good and bad news about this. The good news is that executions are down in the United States. Fifteen years ago, we executed 98 people. The bad news is that maybe we would have ranked higher before. But even with our reduction in executions, we are still a major outlier. We are the only nation in North or South America to carry out executions. Think about that. All those supposed backward people down south still manage to avoid executing anyone. We make up roughly one-third of the population of the two continents, but we killed 39 and they killed zero. Also, “The USA was the only country of the 56 member states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to have carried out executions.” Are we not proud?
One interesting statistic is that between 2012 and 2013, the number of nations executing people went down slightly. But the number of executions went way up: by 12%. I think executions can be seen as a kind of contagion. Clearly, executions are not a rational response to violence or crime. It reminds me of the response to “Typhoid” Mary Mallon. She was locked up even while other typhoid carriers were not. She was locked up as a kind of public relations effort — to make people feel better about the disease. And that’s largely how the death penalty in the United States works: it doesn’t make anyone safer, but it shows that the government takes murder seriously — even if the government doesn’t take it seriously.
It’s all pathetic. But it does drive home an important point. When we think about our country, we shouldn’t compare it to other advanced economies with democratic governments. We should think of our real peers: China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Next to them, we really do stand out like a shining city on a hill. Compared to Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, we really don’t. So let’s embrace our Iron Age culture. We’re one of the best!