hard heads soft hearts

a scratch pad for half-formed thoughts by a liberal political junkie who's nobody special. ''Hard Heads, Soft Hearts'' is the title of a book by Princeton economist Alan Blinder, and tends to be a favorite motto of neoliberals, especially liberal economists.

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Thursday, March 17, 2005
Matt Yglesias has a really good post on vengeance in punishing criminals. I recently changed my mind on the death penalty. Before, I believed in the Islamic doctrine, that after the murderer had been found guilty of 1st-degree murder, it was up to the family of the victim to decide whether or not to execute him. What changed my mind is the realization that we are better off when there is a very clear bright line that separates the good guys from the bad guys: that the good guys hate killing, and don't kill unless it is necessary, and the good guys don't kill in cold blood. When the good guys execute people, then the firm commandment "Don't kill in cold blood" changes to "Don't kill in cold blood without justification"

Because human beings are so good at rationalizing and manufacturing justifications for their preferred actions, I think this is dangerous, and that's why I now oppose the death penalty. George Orwell dealt powerfully with this topic in his essay Revenge is Sour, which describes, among other things, a Viennese Jew meting out punishment to Nazis:

. . .the Jew told us the prisoner's history. He was a "real" Nazi: his party number indicated that he had been a member since the very early days, and he had held a post corresponding to a General in the political branch of the S.S. It could be taken as quite certain that he had had charge of concentration camps and had presided over tortures and hangings. In short, he represented everything that we had been fighting against during the past five years. . .

I wondered whether the Jew was getting any real kick out of this new-found power that he was exercising. I concluded that he wasn't really enjoying it, and that he was merely -- like a man in a brothel, or a boy smoking his first cigar, or a tourist traipsing round a picture gallery -- telling himself that he was enjoying it, and behaving as he had planned to behave in the days he was helpless.

. . .It is absurd to blame any German or Austrian Jew for getting his own back on the Nazis. . . But what this scene, and much else that I saw in Germany, brought home to me was that the whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.

Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing S.S. officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting . . .