Sunday, November 28, 2010

Returning Evil for Evil

You have been kidnapped by some strange men. Without harming you or threatening you in any way, the men place you alone inside a room and lock the door. Before they close the door, one of the men shows you a calendar on the wall and points to a date many weeks in the future and tells you that on that day they will kill you.

As the days pass, you are fed regularly and allowed to read books and magazines that the men provide for you. But you are kept in the locked room and when you ask some of the men about the upcoming date on the calendar, you are told that it is true, that on that date you will be killed, and that there is nothing you can say or do to change their minds. When you ask them how they will do it, they tell you that one of them will be chosen to choke you to death with a rope.

And, just as you have been told so many days in advance, the day arrives and the men appear at the door of your room in the morning. Hands bound, you are taken outside to a small platform where an odd-looking chair has been erected. You are made to sit down on this chair and a metal brace is placed around your neck. Without ceremony, after the brace is in place, a rope is tightened around your throat . . .

There are crimes, and then there are what people have called "heinous" crimes. But I cannot think of a murder conducted more heinously than the one I have just narrated. And yet it is what takes place every time, all over the world, when a man or woman is killed through a state-sanctioned execution. The manner of the killing varies from country to country. The manner I described is a very old one called "garroting," which is still practiced in countries like Indonesia.
Hanging, electrocution, or firing squad are some others. In the United States, which is one of only five countries in the developed world that continues to execute convicted criminals (1), the most common form of execution is now lethal injection, which was created because it is considered the most "humane" technique, based on medical opinion which sometimes conflicts with the facts. But in every case, it is undisguised and self-proclaimed killing.

The lethal injection, just like releasing the trap door or throwing the switch, is administered by a human being. Yet no one would accuse an executioner of being a murderer. Why? Because he is only performing his appointed duty to the state. He is not acting in his own interests, but in the interests of the court, of the law, and of the men and women who wrote those laws. And in whose interests do these statesmen, these administrators and legislators, act? In a democracy, they act in the interests of the people who appointed them, of the ordinary citizens. But how can the state, which is an agent of the people in a democracy, reserve for itself the right to kill? Who has given them such power to settle matters of life and death?

Thomas Aquinas was adamant, if rather defensive, about the authority of the state to execute convicted criminals (2): "Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord."

We are no longer so confident of divine sanctions for our acts, and we are no longer subject to the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth rule. So why should we still answer evil for evil when it comes to murder? According to legend, when the Marquis de Sade was relieved of his job as a judge after the French Revolution because of his refusal to sentence anyone to death, he said, "To kill a man in a paroxysm of passion is understandable, but to have him killed by someone else after calm and serious meditation and on the pretext of duty honourably discharged is incomprehensible."

It is my sad conviction that some of the most crucial social advances will come to every country in the world before they come to my native country. People all over the world watched last year in disbelief when the debate over universal healthcare raged in America. What could possibly be wrong with the idea that everyone should have access to inexpensive standardized healthcare? And yet American conservatives are poised to repeal the healthcare bill that President Obama pushed through Congress.

Similarly, a majority of Americans have shown their approval of capital punishment in numerous surveys. While no longer used in federal cases, it is still being implemented in 35 states. Some of the arguments in favor of capital punishment are that it is cheaper than incarcerating a criminal for life and that it is a deterrent - despite ample evidence to the contrary. The fact that people sentenced to death average more than a decade awaiting their executions (amplifying the element of torture that I outlined in my opening narration) and that this waiting period is getting longer proves the extent to which the system is broken and that states implementing the death penalty are losing their nerve to do so. How long will it take these states to understand what nearly every civilized nation on earth has long since learned?

(1) The other four countries are - not surprising to me - in Asia: Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
(2) Murder is, of course, only one of many "capital offenses" (Latin "capitalis", "regarding the head"). In 18th century England there were 222 offenses that were punishable by death, including cutting down a tree or stealing an animal.

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