Death and All of His Friends

The Government recently set up a website on which citizens can register petitions to the government; Parliament will debate any which cross a threshold of 100,000 signatures.

As of the time of writing, the issues with the most signatures are to bring back the death penalty, keep F1 free-to-air, and to retain the ban on the death penalty. Happily, the petition to retain the ban on the death penalty is absolutely spanking the petition to bring it back. Partly I’m happy about this because — please excuse the ad hominem — I find its originator, Paul Staines (who blogs under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes), to be a fairly unpleasant character whenever I come across his views.

Mostly though, I’m happy about this because I’m fundamentally opposed to the death penalty.

There are multiple dimensions to which you can analyse this debate: the purely practical issues of if it will be cheaper, or safer, for society in the long run to execute people rather than locking them up; and the moral dimension, is it fundamentally right to execute people?

I’m going to declare my bias: I think it’s morally wrong. It is an utterly appalling and regrettable thing for one human being to kill another, wherever and whenever it happens. There are, unfortunately, times when killing is necessary. Times when life must be taken in self-defence, or when it’s kill-or-be-killed, even occasionally in war: few would disagree that Hitler needed stopping.

But it’s important that when you fight monsters, you take care not to become a monster yourself. Hitler had to be stopped because he would have expanded Eastwards until either the Russians stopped him, or he’d enslaved or exterminated every single one of them. A little evil was committed to prevent a greater evil. There was no other choice.

Mostly, though, we do have a choice. When we catch a murderer, we can be better than they are. We don’t have to kill; we have a choice. We can lock them away so they’ll never do harm again. If we’re lucky, they’ll genuinely repent, and become useful members of society again. Gandhi said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and (even though I’m not religious, I like this bit) Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. Be bigger, be better, be greater.

That’s the problem with execution; it’s not justice. It’s revenge. And revenge is, for lack of a better word, easy. It’s the easy thing to do, when you’ve been wronged, to gang up with your friends, with society at large, and exert your power upon the wrong-doer, and make them suffer. It’s a damned hard thing to do — and this is what I think Jesus was trying to get at — to resist the urge to do so.

I think one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever heard of is Rais Bhuiyan. In 2001, just after the attacks on 9/11, Mark Stroman went on a shooting spree, killing anybody he believed to be Muslim. Bhuiyan was shot in the face with a shotgun, but survived, although he lost the sight in one eye, and still has shotgun pellets embedded in his skull. Two others were killed. Stroman has since been put to death, despite Bhuiyan campaigning for him to be spared. I find Rais Bhuiyan’s example awe-inspiring.

Personally, I think that spending the rest of your life in prison, potentially decades, is a far more awful thing than to merely die. There an awful lot of things in life which are worse than mere death.

Then there’s the purely mechanical issues. Is is cheaper to just execute someone (nope), does it deter murder (probably not), will innocent people be executed by mistake (quite likely), but honestly those don’t bother me so much; they’re not my primary reason.

I think the very notion that the state be allowed to kill fundamentally brutalises our culture; it is a difference not in kind but merely of magnitude between hanging a murder in this country, and stoning to death an adulterer in Iran.

That all said, the theory and philosophy of punishment is an incredibly difficult topic; the death penalty really cuts to the heart of thinking about what punishment is for, and how best to achieve that end. It’s a topic I hope to return to.

4 thoughts on “Death and All of His Friends

  1. Didn’t know much about Norway’s system until the Breivik case. Technically he could serve as little as 21 years in prison, but their crime and re-offend rates are so low they must be doing something right. Death penalty is never the answer.

  2. I think it’s an interesting position for Staines to take on the death penalty, given that he tends to describe himself as somewhat of a libertarian. That said, I’m not convinced that this campaign really is about the death penalty; in this clip, he seems more concerned with Europe and the extent to which MPs should follow the opinions of their constituents. Both of which are interesting and important debates to have. 

  3. Personally I disagree entirely with the death penalty for most of the reasons you came up with – that fundamentally it is not right to kill another human being (excepting kill-or-be-killed/Hitler/etc). But I think I have a different take on punishment theory. I think my main objection to the death penalty is that it allows no possibility of reform.

    I tend to believe that the purpose of a justice system should not be to punish or take vengeance – rather, a good justice system should re-educate and rehabilitate offenders. The death penalty makes that impossible not only because a criminal can hardly repent if he or she is dead but also because, as you say, condoning the death penalty fundamentally brutalises our culture. If we cannot claim moral superiority how can anyone respect the justice system? My uncle worked in a womens’ prison for a long while, and one of the things he did was to lead discussion group with the prisoners as part of the rehabilitation process. At first I think he was astonished by the fact that many of them simply had no sense of right or wrong – they were completely unable to empathise and realise that if they did this thing to another human being that was wrong because how would they feel if it happened to them? – these apparently intuitive ideas had simply been lacking from their upbringing.

    I think the point I’m making is that to punish someone you make the assumption that they know and comprehend that their actions were wrong and that therefore their punishment is a result of that. And if you can’t assume that cognitive link in a prisoner’s mind then why are you punishing them? I also believe that the vast majority of crimes are committed because the perpetrator hasn’t truly comprehended that they are wrong, and that’s why I suppose victim confrontation has been such a trendy recent development in crime and punishment. I also tend to think that living with guilt, if you udnerstand and feel remorse for an action, is surely punishment enough. Which is why I don’t believe in punishment or vengeance justice. And why on all counts the death penalty is entirely wrong and frankly, utterly stupid.

    I was going to say this several months ago and I don’t quite know what happened that I never actually managed to post a comment here. Also I’m not quite sure that this says what I meant, I’m not happy with it as a comment, but there we go.

    1. I just re-read the blog post and I’m not sure I like it as a post, so there we go!

      I think that the points you raise are all really important; there’s an awful lot of political meddling that goes on about our justice system without any clear statement of what exactly the justice system is for.

      If the point is purely retributive punishment, then essentially it doesn’t matter if the offender comprehends or understands why they are being punished; the punishment is both the means and the end. In that framework, the death penalty makes perfect sense; it’s both 99.999% effective in preventing recidivism (the 0.001% covers the chance of them rising from their graves as the hordes of the undead) and it satisfies the desire that someone be hurt.

      Nietzsche wrote a bit about this sort of topic (which inspired some of the above post) as punishment being a way for the victims of crime (and society at large) to vicariously re-assert their power after being subject to the power of the offender. The act of putting someone to death is, in essence, a power-play. In that framework, even executing the wrong man (as has probably happend with Troy Davis in the US) actually still makes sense. It matters less if the right person was executed, than that someone, anyone, was executed. The point is the assertion of power, not that it is correctly aimed.

      Of course, the trouble with that is (and what Nietzsche objected to) is that that is a fundamentally weak way to behave. Inflicting arbitrary and brutal punishment is what he would call “slave morality”. It does nothing for the — and for lack of a better word — soul, of the punisher.

      So yes, I’m greatly more in favour of the driving purpose of the justice system to be essentially rehabilitative. Attempting to rehabilitate, even if you may well fail, is a noble thing to do. 

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