A military jury decided this week to recommend the death sentence for convicted Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people and wounded another 32 when he opened fire on a building packed with unarmed soldiers and civilians in 2009. Before and during his trial, Hasan expressed his wish to die in order to become a Muslim martyr. His unorthodox defense at trial and the death sentence are reigniting debates about the purpose and meaning of the death penalty.
Americans’ views of the death penalty are complex. Americans are nearly evenly divided on the policy question of whether people convicted of murder should receive the death penalty (46 percent) or be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole (47 percent). However, there is evidence that this national ambivalence seems grounded in concerns about the death penalty’s fair implementation, particularly with regard to non-white perpetrators, rather than in moral principle. When asked about the morality of the death penalty, six-in-ten Americans (60 percent) say it is morally acceptable.
The Hasan case presents new elements to this debate. First, as the New York Times editorial page out, because of the peculiar circumstances of the case, “many of the usual arguments against the death penalty — that it’s arbitrary, that there’s the possibility of innocence — don’t apply.” Absent these pragmatic arguments about unjust implementation, those opposing the death penalty for Hasan have to do so on the principled grounds that are currently shared by approximately one-third of Americans. The New York Times editorial board, for example, has staked out this ground. Interestingly, they also buttressed this argument with a consequentialist appeal, arguing that life in prison would have been the preferred route to take precisely because it denies him this last act of agency, and along with it the potential to be considered a hero among Islamic extremists.
But the recent history of how these convictions are carried out suggests that the principled opponents, pragmatic opponents, and proponents of the death penalty may see outcomes that are in practice not so far apart. Given the presidential approval required, on top of an often lengthy mandatory appeals process, the sentence may not get carried out for decades. Hasan joins five other servicemen facing lethal injection, and the last military execution was in 1961.