Fundamentally, most Americans who support the death penalty do so because they want to believe that our justice system is just, and not merely a mechanism for quarantining the dangerous in order to keep the law-abiding safe. The case for executing murderers is a case for proportionality in punishment: for sentences that fit the crime, and penalties that close the circle.As Douthat notes, the move against the death penalty is more often than not grounded in dispair. Russell Kirk made a similar point many years ago in an essay on the death penalty which, unfortunately, isn't available online. Kirk's basic argument was that opposition to the death penalty was grounded not so much in a belief in the sacredness of human life, but in a materialist view of existence that saw this life as the only thing of value. Belief in an afterlife, and its attendant judgment, had wained in public life, and as a consequence people began to see this life as the only thing with value. As a result, execution became to be seen as a punishment too extreme to be inflicted.
Instead of dismissing this point of view as backward and barbaric, criminal justice reformers should try to harness it, by pointing out that too often our punishments don’t fit the crime — that sentences for many drug crimes are disproportionate to the offenses, for instance, or that rape and sexual assault have become an implicit part of many prison terms. Americans should be urged to support penal reform not in spite of their belief that some murderers deserve execution, in other words, but because of it — because both are attempts to ensure that accused criminals receive their just deserts.
Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility would send a very different message. It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice. It could encourage a more cynical and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what moral standards we should hold them to. And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.
Dispair leads to enervation.