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The Company We Keep

From the Economist, a chart of executions by nation during 2002:

Besides the US, the rest of the top ten countries in terms of executions consists of China, Pakistan, Kenya, Sudan, Bangladesh, Iran, Egypt, Vietnam, and Rwanda.

How can Americans look at a list like this and not feel deeply ashamed?


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Easy - some of these people killed children, some killed cops. In any case, this chart is meaningless. It needs to show the number of executions per capita - not total deaths. This will significantly re-order this list and USA will no longer be in the "second only to China" category. China is still on top, though. Frank, didn't you go to the Tufte lecture with me?

David, you make a valid point about absolute versus per-capita execution numbers.

I can't find the source statistics referenced by the Economist, so I've estimated numbers from their chart and compared them to population numbers from the 2002 World Population Data Sheet for the top 12 countries in absolute numbers:

Executions: 1,921
Population: 1,280,700,000
Rate: 1 per 666,684

United States
Executions: 152 (est.)
Population: 287,400,000
Rate: 1 per 1,980,789

Executions: 144 (est.)
Population: 143,500,000
Rate: 1 per 996,527

Executions: 128 (est.)
Population: 31,100,000
Rate: 1 per 242,969

Executions: 124 (est.)
Population: 32,600,000
Rate: 1 per 262,903

Executions: 88 (est.)
Population: 133,600,000
Rate: 1 per 1,518,181

Executions: 64 (est.)
Population: 65,600,000
Rate: 1 per 1,025,000

Executions: 48 (est.)
Population: 71,200,000
Rate: 1 per 1,483,333

Executions: 48 (est.)
Population: 79,700,000
Rate: 1 per 1,660,416

Executions: 42 (est.)
Population: 7,400,000
Rate: 1 per 176,190

Executions: 40 (est.)
Population: 67,300,000
Rate: 1 per 1,682,500

Executions: 30 (est.)
Population: 1,049,500,000
Rate: 1 per 34,983,333

Therefore, an ordered list would like like this:

  1. Rwanda: 1 per 176,190
  2. Kenya: 1 per 242,969
  3. Sudan: 1 per 262,903
  4. China: 1 per 666,684
  5. Pakistan: 1 per 996,527
  6. Iran: 1 per 1,025,000
  7. Egypt: 1 per 1,483,333
  8. Bangladesh: 1 per 1,518,181
  9. Vietnam: 1 per 1,660,416
  10. Turkey: 1 per 1,682,500
  11. United States: 1 per 1,980,789
  12. India: 1 per 34,983,333
So instead of being sandwiched between China and Pakistan in terms of our execution rate, now we're sandwiched between Turkey and India.

I feel so much better...

The point is that this is a political chart. Granted, we execute people in the US, but you can't be allowed to make your point by lying about to what extent. Either your country allows executions or it doesn't. If your country allows it, then of course it is on this list. You can be ashamed that the US executes people if that's how you feel. (Of course, this is your blog - you can post any propaganda you feel like - no, it's blopaganda!)

David, what are you trying to say? I think it's safe to assume that the Economist's chart is accurate as a reflection of absolute numbers of people executed. My numbers are derived from the Economist's and other numbers, and are as accurate as I can make them. Both sets of numbers are factual data, presented as simply as possible. No one is "lying about to what extent" the US executes criminals -- these are simply two different ways of looking at the data.

Independent of the Economist's chart, I am ashamed of the US for executing criminals. But I am even more ashamed to look at the chart and see the other countries that choose to do so -- countries possessing, in almost all cases, terrible human rights records. What does it say about us that we share this in common?

In all probability Turkey won't be on the list anymore. In order for Turkey to become eligible to even apply for membership of the European Union, they had to amend some laws and practices regarding human rights, one of which was capital punisment.

That would leave the US sandwitched between Vietnam and India.

Jan, you're absolutely right. Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2002. From Amnesty International's report, "Death Penalty Developments in 2002":

On 3 August the Turkish parliament adopted a law abolishing the death penalty except in time of "war or imminent threat of war". The new law replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment, with no possibility of release for certain prisoners. The law was approved by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer on 8 August and entered into force with its publication in the Official Gazette the next day.

A constitutional amendment, passed in October 2001, had abolished the death penalty for criminal acts but retained it in time of war and for "terrorist crimes". Death sentences continued to be passed by the courts: between January and July 2002 at least 36 people, three of whom had been convicted for criminal offences, were sentenced to death.

Since the foundation of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, 588 people have been executed for criminal and political offences. The last executions were in 1984.

This was part of Turkey's unsuccessful effort to gain admission to the European Union -- at least that's my understanding, that the impetus came from their desire for EU membership.

It isn't the Economist's chart any more than it is yours. Look at the bottom of it. Your original point is that we are in the "top ten". And by inclusion of the chart implicitly saying that we are "second only to China" so aren't we the evil ones. I don't object to your position, I can understand it, though I don't agree. What I don't like is using information without appropriate context to make a point. Any point.

Yes, the Economist took its source data from Amnesty International -- but so what? The source is noted on the chart.

What do you believe an appropriate context to be?

Look, here's a list of all 31 countries and territories that executed people in 2002 (from Amnesty International), in alphabetical order:

  • Belarus
  • China
  • Egypt
  • Equatorial Guinea
  • India
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Japan
  • Jordan
  • Kazakhstan
  • Korea (North)
  • Kuwait
  • Malaysia
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Palestinian Authority
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Singapore
  • Somalia
  • Sudan
  • Syria
  • Taiwan
  • Tajikistan
  • Thailand
  • Uganda
  • United Arab Emirates
  • United States
  • Uzbekistan
  • Vietnam
  • Yemen
  • Zimbabwe
You know what? I don't want to be anywhere on this list. I don't want to be associated with this group of countries. No matter our ranking in absolute or per-capita exeuctions, I think it's an embarrassment to us to be anywhere on this list (as it should be to Japan, the only other First World nation to execute people last year).

The people who get executed in the US, and in India, Japan, and several other civilized countries, had to really go out of their way to qualify for it by meeting the "special circumstances" test. That means they had to kill muliple people, kill a cop, or kill a child.

To argue that people who've done these things deserve to live a long and comfortable life at taxpayer expense is certainly possible, and to many people it's persuasive, but it's hardly a slam-dunk, regardless of current fashion in western Europe.

Now do the abortion chart, bearing in mind the innocence of all the poor hapless fetuses, and tell me if you're ashamed of America's position on that one as well. This is a moral consistency check, of course.

Richard, we can agree to disagree on the morality of executions. Obviously your position is that they're a reasonable punishment for certain crimes. I respect that. My position is they're not -- but it took years of thought and soul-searching to come to that view.

As for abortion, though, I don't for one second buy into the idea that there is some sort of moral equivalency between aborting a fetus and executing an adult human being. An adult human being is conscious and self-aware; a fetus is not. An adult human being is viable on its own; a fetus (through all of the first and most of the second trimester) is not.

In any case, the reality of today's political climate is that majorities of the American public are in favor of both capital punishment and legalized abortion. Opponents of these practices have to realize that public opinion must change, and dramatically, before the law will change. According to the Harris Poll, support for the legality of first-trimester abortions has fluctuated between 52 and 65 percent in the 30 years since Roe v. Wade. Over that same period, support for capital punishment has fluctuated between 59 and 75 percent. Neither practice is going away anytime soon.

Actually, I'm with you on the death penalty. I don't think that taking human life, outside the battlefield or in self-defense, should be a prerogative of the state, and I don't believe our justice system is efficient enough to make irreversible decisions in any case. Most of my fellow Americans disagree with me on this. It's interesting that polls taken in Europe show that most of the people in those countries actually favor the death penalty, which isn't law because, apparently, Europe isn't as democratic as the US, India, Japan, et. al.

And I'm also personally opposed to abortion in any case where the fetus is healthy enough that it's likely to come to term as long as it's not interfered with. Whether most Americans agree or disagree with this position depends on how the question is phrased; most Americans are opposed to the two extreme positions on abortions, pro- and con-.

But that's the trouble with democracy: the dumb people outnumber the smart people, so we tend to get some pretty dumb laws.

Incidentally, the figures reported by the Economist and allegedly provided by Amnesty International for the US aren't even close to being correct. The charts claims the US executed 151 or 152 people in 2001, yet Amnesty International's fact sheet claims we executed 66 people that year, and the trend is downward.

In the US, the vast majority of executions are carried out in five southern states, and 38 states don't allow the death penalty at all. So the US isn't really all that far out of step with our good friends the Europeans after all.

There are shadows on the faces
of the men who fan the flames
of the wars that are fought in places
we can’t even say their names.

They sell us our Presidents the same way
they sell us our clothes and our cars [oil].
They sell us everything from young to religion,
at the same time they sell us our wars.

I want to know who the men in the shadows are.
I want to hear someone ask them; why
They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are
But they are never the ones to fight and to die?

And there is lives in the balance, there IS…
People under fire, there IS…
Children at the canons, there IS….
And there is “blood on the wire”. Jackson Browne. Lives in the Balance 1986

We smug Americans ‘observe’ the wire (CNN, AP, etc).
But, we do NOT “see” ANY of the normative abject status of the human condition occurring NOW (actually, still)
‘We’ are so totally ignorant, arrogant, selfish, and ultimately discontent. NTM, Destroyers of Worlds!

Change that!
. . . with a proprietary technology
. . . and, we’ll do lunch sometime!

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