We, by which I mean "Oprah and people who hang on her every word," talk a lot about "closure," and how it's absolutely essential to get from Point A in one's life to some desired Point B. Anything with that much public support is suspect almost by default; indeed, Lindsay Beyerstein is "deeply suspicious" of the concept, and considers its definition more than a trifle nebulous:

Sometimes we speak of closure as a property of circumstance rather than a psychological state. Executions are sometimes said to provide closure because the the murderer's death expunges the criminal. Once an offender has been put to death, survivors know that the process has reached a final and definitive end. The perp is gone. There will be no more appeals, no possiblity of clemency, and no more nagging awareness that the killer [is] still alive. Some people call that definitive resolution "closure" and say that survivors have a right to see these loose ends tied up.

Conceptual confusions aside, the problem with closure is that it medicalizes retributivism. Closure has almost no scientific currency, but it has a psychological/psychiatric ring to it. Allegedly, closure is the healthy resolution for grief. On this view, people who won't rest until they see a killer executed are lacking something that they need for mental health. By appealing to their need for closure, we cast them as sick people who need something in order to get better.

And God knows Oprah, and therefore Dr. Phil, and therefore a whole brigade of touchy and/or feely types, will jump at anything with a psychological/psychiatric ring to it; it's the application of a semi-scientific veneer to dress up a forlorn piece of emotional wallboard. And it's not like Winfrey and company are actually fans of the death penalty or anything: it's just that first and foremost, they want you to know that they feel your pain.

Personally, I never could understand the publicity machine that cranks up every time there's an execution: it would seem more sensible to me to let the perps disappear from public view, and then, when the time comes, give them their shove into a more permanent oblivion. The fact that both news media and professional protesters would object strenuously to this premise speaks highly of its virtue, I think.

Back to Beyerstein:

If closure is a psychological process, you can't argue about what ought to enable people to come to terms with their loss. Medicalization masks the moral dimensions of the desire for retribution. According the medical model, it's just a fact that some people need to see an execution in order to get better. By reifying closure, we exempt survivors from moral judgment. Wanting to see someone executed reflects one's character in a way that needing one would not. For all its faults, retributivism demands proportionality. It is only considered fair to demand what you are owed. Retributivists think that proportionate demands are morally worthy but that excessive demands for vengeance are morally suspect in and of themselves.

Medicalization sidesteps questions of justice. According to old fashioned retributivism, victims are entitled to see their loved ones avenged. This concept of entitlement is rooted in justice, not beneficence. Retributivists say that victims have a right to see offenders punished fairly, not to whatever punishment makes them feel the best. Once we start talking about providing closure for survivors, we elide the questions of justice. Closure is supposed to be something that survivors need for their mental health. Closure is about what makes someone feel better, not about what is just. By assigning such overwhelming importance to the nebulous idea of closure, we are outsourcing retributivism. We are saying that survivors need to exact retribution in order to heal, perhaps because they regard a particular punishment as the only acceptable outcome. Appeals to closure are an excuse to ignore the question of whether we think what they want is just.

Of course, we live in an era where nothing is more important than How People Feel, where victims are routinely assigned the maximum level of moral authority, and it's justified because, well, they feel bad.

I am what one would call a somewhat-reluctant supporter of capital punishment, although the reluctance stems mostly from discomfiture with a system which, at least in this part of the country, seems more interested in maximizing the number of executions than in justifying it. (Back in 1998, I said something to the effect that the "implementation [of capital punishment] in this country has always seemed to be haphazard at best and horrendously biased to boot.") Still, I believe that there are people who simply ought to be fried, and that's that. (Yes, Zacarias Moussaoui, I'm talking to you.)

And the current emphasis on closure has become a tool of the prosecution: whatever the merits of the actual case, the victims presumably must have closure, and to obtain that closure demands the maximum penalty prescribed by law. This assumes a priori that this is exactly what the victims want, an assumption which might stand up in some instances, but I suspect that there are times when it won't; there are people whose sensibilities simply cannot abide that eye-for-an-eye stuff, and I don't think it's my job, or the job of the prosecuting attorney, to persuade them otherwise.

In effect, of course, this simply restates the obvious: there's nothing unusual about appealing to emotions during a criminal trial. Where we err, I think, is in our tendency to give those emotions more weight than they deserve; justice is, or at least is supposed to be, a logical, unemotional process, and we impede justice by insisting that it be subjected to Oprahfication along the way.

The Vent

  1 April 2006

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 Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill