We punish to deter. We punish to acknowledge the harm brought to the victim, to their loved ones, to their community. We punish to shame and to publicly dishonor the criminal. But the way we do it should embody ideals of humanity, magnanimity, and improvement. Punishment thus should be as light as is consistent with the requirements of security and harmonious society. We must learn, against the grain of our vengeful retributive instincts, to find satisfaction in justice that leaves the thief with his hands, the murderer with his life. ... The folks at the GOP debate in Tampa who cheered for Texas' record of execution under Rick Perry showed just how indecently uncivilized America remains. But sooner or later enlightenment will dawn and we'll stop perversely killing in the name of justice.
As optimistic as I can be at times, I do not share Wilkinson's hope that enlightenment will dawn in America. We are a bloodthirsty, vengeful people, deeply steeped in the traditions of the Old Testament ("eye for an eye"), and hungry for an over response whenever we are wronged. You flip someone off on the freeway, you might get shot at. You smoke a joint, you serve years in prison. You tweet a picture of your dick to some random woman, you lose your congressional career.