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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Death Wish

This time death penalty wish. I am very glad that the supreme court has finally ruled that killing people for crimes committed when they were children is unconstitutional. In the article in the New York time reporting this (redundant link) I read something which suprised me into saying "come on. Your totally full of ... error"

Professor Blecker said that analysis was based on faulty premises.

"The problem is that when you look at the opposition of other nations," he said, "they're looking at governments and not people. Every European government which abolished the death penalty did it in the face of overwhelming political support."

I knew of only two relevant number 50% the fraction of Italians advocating death for Mafia bosses in a poll taken immediately after the murder of Paolo Borsellino (2nd investigating magistrate blown up in a month). The conclusion drawn by all Italian journalists is that polls taken immediately after dramatic events are unreliable because, of course, they know Italians are against the death penalty because they and all of their friends are opposed. the other is 48% support in Tuscany, which is one of the most left wing parts of Italy not to mention the region with the most catholic communists (who are definitely opposed for each reason). Also, of course, I know support for killing people is very high in the UK.

I assumed, however, that Blecker's claim was so wrong that a bit of google would show it to be nonsense. Well I know it is hard to look up what people thought when the death penalty was being abolished (1946 in Italy) but I am going to interpret it as making a claim about then now and all time in between (otherwise it would be technically true but deliberately misleading).
I still think that claims including "every" are likely to be false, but my googling amazed me.

I got "Up to 77 percent of Britons support the reintroduction of capital punishment, and close to 50 percent think the same way in France and Italy. Even in peace-loving Sweden, a 1997 poll found that 49 percent of Swedes wanted the return of capital punishment"

(ok AEI is reliable like I work for Columbia University but hey).

I have long believed that, at least for Italy, the huge difference is that US democracy is more majoritarian, I mean not just populist but effectively democratic, and that the air of intellectual and moral superiority typical of Italians talking about the death penalty in the USA is a result of comparing the Italian elite to regular people in the USA.

But I mean Sweden ?!? you have got to be kidding me right ?

update: Morten (last name withheld on his request) explains in an e-mail

"Yes, in a way they are kidding.

That poll (as I remember it) was formulated as "do you believe there are some crime that should be punished by capital punishment" or something to that effect. That means if you go "hm, well I wouldn´t condem executing Hitler" you should answer "yes". As well as a debate on capital punishment it also caused a debate on polling-phraseology, and I think the tabloid (or was it a radio station?) that ordered the polling apologized.

If you mention this on your blog (which btw looks nice and I found it via fistfulofeuros) please withhold my last name and emailadress. Thanks."

I am sure the responses would have been different if the question was more abstract "do you support capital punishment". To me one's answer to the briefer question should logically be yes if one's answer to the actual question is yes, but I'm sure that many many people would answer yes to the actual question and no to the briefer question. Also one can ask a specific question as in "do you think that someone who killed 12 strangers should be put to death if convicted in a fair trial" or "do you think a hitman who kills for pay should be put to death if convicted in a fair trial". by the way, I think there are very very few countries left who use death as the normal punishment for murder or even for pre meditated murder (U.S. certainly not among them). In any case, it is not clear how many Swedes support capital punishment for crimes other than genocide, but it is certainly less than 49%

As in the Italian case mentioned in my original post, I suspect that the focus on polling methodology reflects a gap between elite Swedish opinion and popular Swedish opinion.

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