The Pros and Cons of Death Penalty: When Death is Not Enough Essay

Death penalty seems like a justified punishment for victims of heinous crimes, but perhaps, even that is not enough. Two authors explored the pros and cons of death penalty. In “The Penalty of Death,” H.L. Mencken counters two common arguments against death penalty. First, death penalty is degrading to those who perform and witness it; second, death penalty has no value because it does not effectively deter crime (Mencken 1). Mencken argues that death penalty does not displease executioners and it provides “katharsis” for victims, their families, and society. In “Execution,” Anna Quindlen argues that death penalty is wrong because it does not achieve its desired ends. She stresses that it cannot provide sufficient justice for victims and their families and it does not make any moral sense. These authors have similarities in the use of personal ideas and anecdotal and hypothetical evidence as evidence, logos through inductive reasoning and agreement on death penalty’s goals, and pathos through an empathic writing style that appeals to justice, although they differ in writing style, audience, and attitude toward death penalty. Quindlen is more persuasive than Mencken because her ironic tone emphatically argues that death penalty is wrong because it is simply morally insufficient as a form of retribution.

These authors have similarities in the use of personal ideas and anecdotal and hypothetical evidence. Mencken talks about his personal ideas when attacking the opponents of death penalty. He argues from his personal viewpoint that crime deterrence is not the only goal of death penalty, and instead “katharsis” is “practically considered” and “more important” (1). By saying this, he shows that something more personal and emotional is behind the need for death penalty. Quindlen also offers her personal ideas on death penalty. She admits that her “guts” “govern” her ideas on death penalty, which is why she can be “hypocritical” about it (450.3). Like Mencken, Quindlen personalizes her attack on death penalty by asserting her personal feelings toward it. In addition, both authors use anecdotal evidence as proof for their arguments. For instance, Mencken says he has not heard any executioner who is complaining of his job and instead, he has “known many who delighted in their ancient art, and practiced it proudly” (1). By saying ancient art, he is underlining the proud tradition behind death penalty. Quindlen also uses anecdotal evidence when she says that the justice system is flexible enough where people who could get the death penalty can easily get a lighter sentence (451.4). She uses examples that support her claim that death penalty is useless as a crime deterrent. Additionally, both authors use hypothetical evidence. Mencken uses the imaginary example of B who steals $700 from A (1), while Quindlen provides the likely example of throwing a man from a high-rise building because he did the same to a child (451.5). These are hypothetical evidence that present personal ideas using possible real-world events.

Apart from using the same kinds of evidence, these authors are similar in logos through inductive reasoning and agreement on death penalty’s goals. Mencken uses inductive reasoning by starting from what individuals feel when they get “katharsis” through death penalty and connecting that with what society gets from “katharsis” too. In his example, if A can now sleep knowing that B is punished, the same goes for society that experiences a restoration of peace of mind through death penalty for “until they are brought to book that unhappiness continues; when the law has been executed upon them there is a sigh of relief. In other words, there is katharsis” (Mencken 2). Mencken believes that what one individual feels as “katharsis” is also applicable to the entire society. Quindlen also reasons using inductive reasoning. From the example of throwing a killer out that cannot be done because a “civilized society” would not allow it, she asserts that society cannot also get justice through death penalty that will never equal to the terror of the crime done to the victims and their families (451.5). She notes that from an individual and family standpoint, their sense of justice cannot be attained through death penalty alone, so society cannot either. In addition, the authors are similar in agreeing that death penalty does not deter crime. Mencken argues that society creates a “fundamental error” if they think that hanging someone is enough to deter another person from killing people in the future (1). Like Quindlen, he understands that the most practical and emotional point of death penalty is “katharsis,” which is revenge or retribution. Quindlen agrees with Mencken and asserts that the only reason for death penalty is not to deter crime, but to “exact retribution” (451.4). Quindlen and Mencken both agree that retribution is the practical reason for death penalty. Hence, these two both use inductive reasoning and believe that death penalty’s main function is to get revenge over criminals.

The final similarity of the two is that they use pathos through an empathic writing style that is full of emotional appeals to human sense of justice. Mencken’s writing style is similar with Quindlen because they both present an emotions-based analysis for death penalty though the direction of their emotions is opposite from each other. On the one hand, these authors are both concerned of presenting their emotional beliefs about death penalty. Mencken believes that it is right to punish someone who has horribly wronged victims because it is the only way to achieve “katharsis.” “Katharsis” is what victims, their families, and society need to sleep at night, knowing that the “emotional tension” is released and happiness and peace of mind are both restored (Mencken 1). Quindlen also gets emotional in rejecting death penalty. For her, it is “cerebral” to oppose death penalty because killing another person “makes no sense and is inherently immoral” (450.2). It makes no sense because it cannot replicate the horrors that a killer has done to his victims and it is wrong to act with a murderous instinct that put the killer in his place. For them, death penalty is crucial to feeling justice in the world, although Mencken is for death penalty, while Quindlen is against it.

Through tone and vocabulary, these authors have somewhat different audiences too where Quindlen responds more to victims’ families, while Mencken’s main audiences are lawmakers, the general public, and the criminal justice system,. Mencken appears to be speaking to lawmakers because of his formal language. He chooses words and logical reasoning that can appeal to lawmakers, such as when he says: “…one of the prime objects of all judicial punishments is to afford the same grateful relief (a) to the immediate victims of the criminal punished, and (b) to the general body of moral and timorous men” (1). His words seem to urge lawmakers to continue legalizing capital punishment because it is done, not for the sake of deterring crime alone, but to provide “katharsis” for those who deserve it the most. Moreover, Mencken persuades the general public that death penalty performs the important function of “katharsis” that benefits victims, their families, and society as a whole. He could be responding to the sensitive reactions of people to public hangings by saying that death penalty is a suitable “for crimes involving the deliberate and inexcusable taking of human life, by men openly defiant of all civilized order” (2). He seems to emphasize that with such severe crimes, the only way to feel peaceful again is to remove the person who conducted such atrocious crimes against humanity and civilization. Finally, Mencken complains to the criminal justice system to stop making those who are condemned to death to wait. He is not content to saying that death penalty is morally justified through catharsis because he also asserts that death penalty should be swiftly applied for the sake of the criminal because it is “torture” to make him wait too long (2). He is saying that the justice system should not delay justice because it is unfair also to death penalty inmates.

On the contrary, Quindlen speaks more to victims’ families. By mentioning examples of parents who must be so broken of what happened to their children, such as the parents of the beheaded six-year-old boy Adam Walsh, she wants to put herself in the position of these audiences. She wants to let them know that she can only imagine how it feels to take revenge but not feel peaceful even after it. Furthermore, Quindlen uses a sympathetic tone for these families. She talks about the trauma of Adam’s family who has found the head of their son, and asserts that “[t]here is nothing that anyone could do that is bad enough for an adult [who did what he did to Adam]. Nothing at all” (452.7). Quindlen focuses more on the victims’ families and how she feels for them, that no punishment is enough to make them feel any better after their loss. Quindlen’s and Mencken’s choices of words and tone suggest differences in audiences.

These authors are also different in writing style because of differences in tone. Mencken is more formal in tone because of his vocabulary and approach to the subject of death penalty. For instance, when he talks about the benefits of “katharsis,” he says: “It is more effectively and economically achieved, as human nature now is, by wafting the criminal to realms of bliss” (2). He writes as if he is an economist or a scholar, although he uses emotional images too. Quindley, however, is more empathic toward the victims’ families. She writes in a conversational and intimate tone, as if she is inside the head of these families who lost their children. When she says that “[n]othing at all” can compensate for the harms done to a beheaded little boy, she speaks as if she is in the shoes of Adam’s parents (452.7). Her writing is personal in a way that invites her audience to feel for her too.

With these differences, it is argued that Quindlen is more persuasive than Mencken because her ironic tone is persuasive in asserting that death penalty is wrong because it is not enough as a form of retribution. Quindlen’s strongest argument is posed at the end of her essay. She talks about Tom Leach who said that he wishes that the court would just bring Ted Bundy back to Lake City and “let [them] all have at him” (452.8). Quindlen emphasizes that this is the main flaw of death penalty; it cannot possibly give peace of mind to the families of the victims because they cannot do what they want to the killers. The fact that it is “impossible” to feel a true sense of retribution from death penalty makes it a useless form of punishment (Quindlen 452.8). The irony that justice cannot be received is a painful cost of death penalty. It takes away human life and yet it cannot recover the lost one. It also cannot equate to the horrible experiences of the dead. Quindlen presents a powerful emotional argument that shows that death penalty is wrong because it is simply not enough retribution at all.

These authors have similarities in the use of personal ideas and anecdotal and hypothetical evidence as substantiation, logos through inductive reasoning, agreement on death penalty’s goals, and pathos through an empathic writing style that appeals to justice, although they vary in writing style, audience, and attitude toward death penalty. Quindlen is more influential than Mencken, however, because her ironic tone forcefully argues that death penalty is wrong because it cannot be equal to the pain given to the victims and their families. Her irony makes the audience feel the uselessness of death penalty. If it is, at the most, a form of retribution, and yet it cannot equal to the pains of the victim and their families, then Quindlen offers convincing insight on the meaninglessness of death penalty. Quindlen leaves pro-death penalty advocates thinking of what justice means if death penalty cannot fully give justice to the victims.

Works Cited

Mencken, H.L. “The Penalty of Death.” 1-2. Print.

Quindlen, Anna. “Execution.” 449-452. Print.