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The penalty of death is probably one of the most discussed issues. It is at the same time as old as the Earth itself and as new as all the fresh arguments added by modern society. The question raised by H. L. Mencken in his article "The Penalty of Death" is quite serious and worth analyzing. The author takes an interesting approach to the argument and uses unusual style to support his point. Despite the fact that the issue is very serious he chooses a humorous and witty tone to discuss it. Mencken’s argument can be understood after reading the article, but there still seems to be an overreliance on emotional support and a considerable vagueness of the thesis in his article.
After reading the article the reader has mixed feelings about the issue of death penalty. The very first confusion is the main idea of the text. It can be deducted that the author is a proponent of death penalty. However, this is not crystal clear from his argument. At the beginning of his article the author states two arguments about death penalty commonly used by the opponents of such punishment, the first one being the unpleasant work the executioner has to do and the second one being the uselessness of the punishment (Mencken 524). He then uses the rest of the article to refute those statements and by doing that the author tries to prove his own point of the effectiveness of death penalty.
Looking closely at the text a careful reader can discover several logical fallacies in author’s work. Right after the introduction we encounter the first roadblock to the successful argument. This roadblock is a fallacy of choice, namely a blanket statement. The author tells the audience that he has heard “none” of the executioners who are not happy with their work. On the contrary, he has known many who were proud of it (Mencken 524). The word “none” rings the first bell of inconsistencies in the author’s argument. It is not very wise to use such statements that over-generalize the argument. There might in fact be an executioner who is not happy with his work and who suffers emotional stress every time he has to hang or gas a man.
Another prominent group of fallacies in the given article is a whole bunch of fallacies of emotion. They can be easily detected throughout the article. The first and the most obvious one is the inappropriate use of character. As it was mentioned above, the author uses a light and humorous tone to discuss a very serious issue. While it may lighten the mood a little bit it is still inappropriate. The author sometimes makes jokes about the things that are not funny at all or that shouldn’t be talked about in such a tone. For instance, the author explains that after the victim has got revenge (or the so-called katharsis) he becomes calm, satisfied, and even dreams colorful dreams. “He pictures B chained to the wall of a dungeon a hundred feet underground devoured by rats and scorpions” (Mencken 525). The author has probably meant this illustration as a funny remark, but in fact it does a good job repulsing the readers rather than attaching them to the argument. This is but one vivid example of the inappropriateness of Mencken’s tone throughout his essay.
Furthermore, it would be beneficial to discuss the issue of false authority. While testimonials of competent people may be of a great help to any argument the false authority and unconvincing testimonials will only further weaken the author’s point. In case of “The Penalty of Death” there are simply no testimonials of competent or any other people. The argument seems to be completely built on the author’s authority and the mix of sarcasm and pure demagogy. Mencken does not employ the opinions of other people, statistics, or any other type of evidence. It is possible to argue that he tries to prove this point based on his own knowledge, expertise, and amiability. To enforce his authority, he tells his audience that he has attended some of the death penalty executions. His expertise, however, is questionable. A journalist and a literary critic, be it even a highly educated person, can only be considered an authority on death penalty as far as any of the average people.
Finally, a fallacy called ad misericordiam (which is an appeal to pity) should be discussed. The author falls into this trap at the very end of his argument where he tries to make the audience pity the convicted person, which further confuses the reader as to the main point of the essay. Mencken argues that the real evil of death penalty lies not in the execution itself but in the time it takes to carry it out. He says that the waiting of the criminal is the most cruel part of the whole process. The fear of death itself, according to the article, is less than the fear of expecting it. The person has to sit in his cell and constantly think that he’ll be soon executed. The justification for such practice is to give the convict time to talk to God (Mencken 526). The author pushes the readers to pity the convicted person by using lots of details of his misery.
Considering all the above arguments one can conclude that the article by H.L. Mencken is not as strong as he tries to make it look. The main problem of the article is overreliance on pathos in arguing his point. The author obviously wants to establish rapport with the audience. As a result, he only ends up falling into some illogical assumptions and confusing his reader about the main message he is trying to send. To do the author some justice, it can be said that the average reader might be persuaded by his argument. Educated readers with critical thinking skills, however, can find several weak points in the article and make their own assumptions about the issue discussed and the writer himself.