The death penalty has always provided a window into the darkest corners of American life. Every pathology that infects the nation as a whole—racism, most notably—also affects our decisions about whom to execute. A new report from the Death Penalty Information Center adds a new twist to this venerable pattern.
The subject of the report, just in time for Veterans Day, is the impact of the death penalty on veterans. The author, Richard C. Dieter, the longtime executive director of the invaluable D.P.I.C., estimates that “at least 10% of the current death row—that is, over 300 inmates—are military veterans. Many others have already been executed.” In a nation where roughly seven per cent of the population have served in the military, this number alone indicates disproportionate representation. But in a nation where military service has traditionally been seen as a route into the middle class—and where being a vet has been seen as more of a benefit than a burden—the military numbers are especially disturbing.
Why are so many veterans on death row? Dieter asserts that many veterans “have experienced trauma that few others in society have ever encountered—trauma that may have played a role in their committing serious crimes.” Although this is hardly the case with every veteran, or even the overwhelming majority of them, Dieter goes on to relate several harrowing stories that follow this model. Because of such traumas, many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, for which they have too often received poor treatment, or none at all.
Veterans who kill are not, by and large, hit men or members of organized crime or gangs. They very often lash out at those around them. Dieter notes that a third of the homicide victims killed by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were family members or girlfriends. Another quarter were fellow service members. This record suggests that, if these veterans had received adequate mental-health care, at least some of them and their victims might have had a different fate.
But it’s possible to see, in the D.P.I.C. study, an echo of another recent high-profile study. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, of Princeton, found that the death rates for middle-aged white men have increased significantly in the past decade or so. This was largely due, according to the authors, to “increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.” The Princeton study fits into a larger pattern in American life, which is the declining health and fortunes of poorly educated American whites.
That cohort has gravitated to military service for generations. And while, again, most veterans never commit any crime, much less crimes that carry the death penalty, the sour legacies of our most recent wars certainly play into the despair of many veterans. Earlier generations of veterans came home from war to ticker-tape parades, a generous G.I. Bill, and a growing economy that offered them a chance at upward mobility. Younger veterans returned to P.T.S.D., a relatively stagnant economy, especially in rural and semi-rural areas, and an epidemic of drug abuse. And they came home to a society where widening income inequality suggested the futility of their engagement with the contemporary world.
In an interview with Vox, Deaton said that the death rate for members of this cohort had increased, in part, because they had “lost the narrative of their lives.” This elegant, almost poetic phrase can be read to include the lost promise of military service—the vanished understanding that veterans earned more than a paycheck, that they also gained a step up in status, both economic and social. The reality has been that many veterans returned to lives that were materially and spiritually worse than the ones they left, and far worse than the ones they expected.
According to the Princeton study, a shocking number of poorly educated whites turned their rage inward, in the form of drug abuse and suicide. But a small handful inflicted their rage on others, and an even smaller number wound up on death row. They are different groups of people, and their individual stories are even more variegated, but it’s possible to see across them the symptoms of a broader anguish.