The Breakfast Table

“If executions aren’t a deterrent, and if they don’t lead to closure, what good are they?’

Dear Atul,

I am glad to hear that you don’t go to doctors (or dentists) much yourself. This is not unusual in your profession, is it? I remember one doctor, the gerontologist Michael Freedman, telling me that doctors almost never take medications, either. His basic line was, doctors know that drugs don’t really work, but patients always want something to show for the visit, so out comes the prescription pad.

I am impressed with your wonderfully clear description of the endarterectomy, particularly so soon after completing it. I would like to ask you at least as many questions about surgery as you would about reporting. (And by the way, I don’t do much “hard news” reporting, preferring the peripheral terrain of “odd stories that other people won’t necessarily write about, and for good reason.”) You wrote that wonderful piece for The New Yorker about the usually unspoken need for surgeons to practice on patients. What do you think about the new rules being put together by the Office of Human Research Protection that would make it easier to do experiments on children? It looks like the advisory panel will suggest that children can be enrolled in experiments even if there’s more than minimal risk and even if the children do NOT stand to benefit from the procedure on trial, a marked departure from existing requirements. When surgeons do surgery on children, is it any different than when they do surgery on adults? Are you less likely to use experimental or innovative procedures on kids?

As for capital punishment, you are right that the evidence strongly suggests it has little or no deterrent value. Nevertheless, at least until recently, the proponents of capital punishment have preferred talking about deterrence over issues of “justice,” which sounded too much like a crude lust for revenge. Witness the performance of both Bush and Gore at one of their presidential debates, both claiming that they support capital punishment because it cuts down on murder rates—if nothing else, an executed criminal won’t be able to escape and kill again. Now, however, it’s much more permissible to talk about the righteousness and even nobility of revenge. And while on a gut level I am all for catching, drawing, and quartering Osama Bin Laden (or, as Bush might call him, “Who?”), I doubt that I, or anybody else—including relatives of those killed in the WTC—would feel better about the death for long. In fact, studies of surviving relatives of murder victims have shown that the execution of the killer does NOT make them feel better, or help with closure, or anything else in the psychobabblers’ lexicon; if anything, they feel worse after the execution because all the ire and purpose they had focused on seeing “justice done” is now left to rattle around in their own sad heads. The loved one is dead. The killer is dead. I feel dead.

So if executions aren’t a deterrent, and if they don’t lead to closure, what good are they? I say this because I would hate to see advances in forensics and DNA evidence, which could potentially reduce the error rate to negligible numbers, be used to make capital punishment a fine solution everlasting. As for the possibility that grizzled warlords like Sharon or Arafat will start looking to evidence to justify their moves, that’s right up there with the chance of an alien civilization responding to our feeble radio calls for cosmic friendship. Both events would be magnificent—but I’m not holding my breath.