Friday, 9 December 2005

A fatal error

As America 'celebrates' the state-sanctioned murder of a round number of its citizens the issues of the death penalty has again been brought into the limelight. I'm always interested in these arguments. I think many people know that, deep down, the death penalty is fundamentally wrong and an anachronism. However, it's incredibly easy to become irrational and emotional about cases that have led to the death penalty being issued (they usually are murders) and this tends to lead to a "they deserve it" mentality.

It's particularly interesting to see how those who are against the punishment argue their case. The arguments for the action are generally pretty easy - the criminal has forfeited their right to life and it will bring closure to the family of the victim. The arguments against take various forms. When trying to convince the population at large often the arguments are made of a very detached nature. Typically the two points are that the death penalty doesn't work and that innocent people get convicted and then killed.

These are, to some extent, good points - it is obviously important that a justice system convicts the right person, and any punishment should look at whether it effectively reduces the chance of a person committing the crime (whilst also protecting society from the most dangerous). Equally obvious is that once you've killed someone it doesn't matter how innocent you later find them, it's too late - something that generally isn't true of prison sentences.

The trouble with these arguments is that they are too utilitarian - they imply that if a perfect system could be devised (where no one was wrongly convicted) and if it could be proved that the death penalty did deter potential criminals then it would be perfectly acceptable to inject people with potassium chloride.

It's not. Just because something might be useful to the state doesn't mean we should do it - it might be 'useful' to kill off a the severely mentally disabled, but thankfully we're enlightened enough to realise we have a moral responsibility to care for them. It might be 'useful' to cut off the genitalia of paedophiles, but again we realise that this crosses a barbaric line. The death penalty is wrong - simply for one reason - it's fundamentally wrong to kill someone in cold blood. Humans have an inalienable right to life. There will be rare moments when this right needs to be placed below someone else's right to life - in the case of a self-defence killing, for example. However state-sanctioned murder is not self-defence - it's just murder.

This is the argument we have to keep at - because it's the only one that there's no comeback to. We have to recognise that as humanity and societies have evolved we've built up a set of rights and moral standards that can't be broken. We all think of hangings, stonings and beheadings as ghastly historical events, when people were less well educated and there were considerably weaker democracies. Yet capital punishment by electric shock or a three-way cocktail of drugs is no better - it simply makes the death more palatable to those doing the killing. Equally, we must not forget those countries (China and Saudia Arabia spring to mind) who are considerably more gung-ho with the death penalty. Both suffer from oppressive regimes, both must be changed through international pressure if their own citizens are not allowed to influence their states' actions.

Finally, it is worth returning to the argument cited above - that such events bring comfort to victims' families. This may or may not be true, but it is a terrible argument. When we or our loved ones are the victims of crime we quickly revert to our baser instincts. As civilised people we know that we mustn't always respond to our heated emotions - when someone pushes me out the way in the street it is rash and unwise of me to stamp on their face, however initially tempting this may be. However, if your child has just been murdered your ability to think rationally is, unsurprisingly, highly compromised. Rather than giving people whose lives have been shattered the support and assistance they need, we instead parade them in front of the media with headlines like "bring hanging back", "hanging's too good for 'em" and so on. This is playing on people's emotions in their darkest hours, and we really should know better. Opinion polls often show a bump in the public's support for the death penalty after a high-profile case, and stupid politicians often seize the day - this is no surprise as we collectively try to put ourselves in the minds of someone who's family member has just been killed. Sensible decisions are not made during periods of immense emotion - they're made rationally. We must make the rational argument that the right to life cannot be taken away out of convenience.

Tags: ,