On the season premiere of the television series, The Walking Dead, Maggie Rhee, leader of the Hilltop community, sentenced former Hilltop leader to death. He pretty well deserved it. He had betrayed Hilltop more than once, and his most recent crime was an attempt to use a bereaved father’s grief to cause him to assassinate Maggie. Gregory got hanged, and the Hilltop community was better off for his going.
Modern people often don’t care for the death penalty, because they don’t mind that their taxes are higher to pay for the lifelong support of convicted murderers, and because they don’t realize that weak penalties for murder make the crime seem more forgivable, and therefore more doable. I remember a case of a girl who had murdered her own mother, who managed to go to Harvard after she got out of jail. Very modern and humane, but I wonder if there was not some non-parent-murdering young person who might have been even more deserving of a chance to go to Harvard.
In a more primitive society, the cost of not executing a killer was higher. If the killer was not let off altogether, he would have to be supported for years in confinement. Let’s forget about the fact that earlier humans didn’t have the concept of prolonged imprisonment as a punishment. Early jails were just somewhere to hold accused criminals until they got their trial, and until they got executed or whipped or whatever their punishment was. After all, post-zombie-apocalypse people would know the concept. But how many people would have to be reassigned from survival chores such as growing crops, raising goats or chickens, or hunting for meat, and spend their working hours guarding a convict? Since having only one guard at a time makes escape more possible, and having no guards for night shift would also not help, we might see 6 men assigned to guard one prisoner during all the possible shifts. How much time would these men have, in their off hours, to contribute to their own survival, and to that of their prisoner?
Death penalty also has the effect of making death penalty crimes more serious, especially if it is applied regularly. Letting people off, however, makes murder seem not such a big deal.
In the Viking society, killing someone directly, without stealth and admitting to the killing afterward, was not considered a crime against the state. It was, however, a crime that could be avenged by the family of the murdered man. Even accidental killings could be avenged that way— as could revenge killings. It was custom that you did not have to kill the actual killer. Anyone from the killer’s clan would do. And so Viking society was plagued by never-ending blood-feuds which traced their origin to one act of murder or one accidental death.
I have heard of a Catholic priest who says that the process of going forward with the death penalty gives the condemned a chance to think about the state of his soul. A chance which is missing when a man is allowed to grow old and senile in prison. Christians are not supposed to want any man condemned to hell, even the murderer of our family members, so Christians should want killers to repent and turn to God before their death.
There is a lot of killing-of-humans in the post-zombie-apocalypse world as depicted in The Walking Dead. A failed strategy, since every person killed could have been a person who could have contributed to the building of a new society and a new economy. I remember how Rick Grimes, as leader of the community of Alexandria, decided to have his followers wipe out the community lead by the bad guy, Negan. Instead he only killed off one outpost, which lead to Negan killing Abraham and Glenn. Since Rick and his followers killed many more than 2 Neganites, one wonders in what sense Rick is a good guy and Negan a bad guy if both groups kill indiscriminately.
The death penalty, applied to one individual who has killed or committed other major crimes, has the virtue of being more fair than just killing random followers of a rival group. When people believe their society has a good, functional justice system, that they will be punished only if they commit a major crime and if there is evidence against them, they start to trust that obeying the laws is in their best interest. Some, of course, will obey only out of fear, and will do the bare minimum to get by in whatever society they are a part of. But others will feel freer to contribute to a new society, knowing that others in the society will be prevented from killing them or robbing them of their property.
The problem with not having a justice system is that killers and robbers can get caught, get let off, and be free to wander to another location to prey on fresh people who don’t know them. Some people are just too dangerous and violent to be trusted with the lives of others. It’s not that we wish them dead, it’s that we wish their future victims to have the chance to live.
Current haters of the death penalty can keep their attitude in large part because we live in a society in which it is quite rare for people to be murdered and robbed randomly. Most of us don’t know personally of anyone who has been murdered. It’s only in societies in which such breaches of the law are more common in which people can feel confident that eliminating all death penalty on humane grounds won’t lead to the sacrifice of many innocent victims. A fictional post-zombie-apocalypse world won’t have such an assurance.