Thursday, March 12, 2015

Since we're talking about the taking of human life ...

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 11.)
There’s something about capital punishment that chills me to the bone.
It’s partly that it’s so coldly deliberate and pre-meditated. Most murders are impulsive acts, carried out in the rage and heat of the moment, but state-sanctioned executions are meticulously planned and orchestrated.

The condemned are taken to the place of execution and given plenty of time to contemplate their fate. What would it be like, I wonder, knowing that you’re on a bus trip to a destination from which you’ll never return? What sort of refined mental torment is that?
They are informed of the time of their execution and can see the clock ticking away. I often think it would be more humane if they were taken from their cell and hanged (or shot, or given a lethal injection, or whatever) without warning.

A strange tradition requires that they be allowed to choose their last meal. It seems cruelly, almost sadistically, banal. I imagine deciding between fish and chips or a mushroom omelette would be the last thing on the prisoner's mind.
In most cases, families are allowed to see them one last time. What a strained, unreal meeting that must be. What would they talk about? You wouldn’t exactly use the occasion to remind Uncle Pete to return that book he borrowed three years ago.

No, capital punishment is a grotesque ritual in which the act of death is only part of the punishment. Arguably the bigger part is the agony of having months, often years, in which to anticipate your last moment alive.
I realise all this must sound pathetically touchy-feely, since people who go to the gallows or the execution chamber have often done unspeakable things. Usually they have killed, and perhaps tortured or raped as well.

In the case of the two Australian citizens now awaiting execution in Indonesia, their crime was less monstrous. They were the leaders of a drug ring that tried to smuggle 8.2 kg of heroin from Indonesia to Australia.
They didn’t kill anyone, but hard drugs destroy people’s lives. You could say drug dealers commit murder by indirect means.

Does that mean they deserve to die, then? Sympathisers, including Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, say the pair have earned the right to mercy because they have transformed themselves in prison. But a cynic might counter that it’s surprising how often criminals undergo a miraculous change of heart once they’ve been caught. 
Imprisonment might have conveniently awakened their consciences, but what if their crime hadn’t been detected? They would very likely have carried on to become wealthy drug kingpins, causing untold harm and misery.

Besides, the Bali Nine knew the risk they were taking. They could hardly have been ignorant of Indonesia’s hard line on drugs.
Those are some of the arguments being trotted out in favour of Indonesia’s right to execute, and there’s an element of truth in all of them. But they fall far short of justification.

Capital punishment - state-sanctioned killing - is supposedly acceptable because society is so horrified by certain types of crime that it demands the ultimate retribution. An additional argument is that execution serves as a deterrent to others, although that’s hardly borne out in the United States, where states that retain capital punishment (such as Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi) also have the highest murder rates.
But ultimately, the debate over capital punishment comes down to a question of human rights, of which the right to life is the most fundamental.

We place such value on human life that to terminate it is considered the ultimate crime. It’s surely contradictory as well as morally wrong, then, to punish people who kill by, ahem, killing them.  Where’s the logic in showing society’s disapproval by carrying out the very act disapproved of?
There are compelling pragmatic reasons, too, for opposing capital punishment, the most obvious one being the possibility that people could be executed for crimes they didn’t commit. What country would want the death of Teina Pora on its conscience, to take an obvious example?

But above all, it comes down to respect for human life – the defining mark of a civilised society.
And here’s something to think about. In New Zealand, nearly half a million babies have been aborted since 1974.

If you believe, as I do, that the right to life applies across the board, and that it can’t be apportioned selectively for society’s convenience, then our abortion figures are as shameful as hanging people or putting them in front of a firing squad – indeed some would say worse, since unborn babies have committed no greater crime than being conceived.
Acceptance of abortion is a shocking blind spot, a grotesque double standard, in a society that rightly rejects capital punishment.  We recoil in horror at the number of executions in Saudi Arabia, China and Texas, yet turn a blind eye to the snuffing out of human life on an infinitely greater scale right here in New Zealand.

It’s both hypocritical and contradictory to condemn capital punishment while condoning the quiet extinguishing of human life every day in abortion clinics. But we tiptoe around this issue because we feel uncomfortable confronting it, and because protection of the unborn is seen as inconsistent with the rigid orthodoxies of feminism.


Brendan McNeill said...


Capital punishment in the west, and presumably in America was historically limited to crimes that were identified in the Old Testament as worthy of the punishment. They are few in number.

Your concern about the innocent being executed was mitigated by Deuteronomy 17:6 that states “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.”

To put this into further perspective, to be guilty of giving a ‘false witness’ was also punishable by death. I’m sure that discouraged the practice.

America, I believe has degrees of murder, and the death penalty has historically been only applied for first-degree murder where the conditions of Deuteronomy have been met. However, I cannot speak for the state of their current laws.

As our culture, and our legal and justice system has drifted away from embracing a Biblical worldview, then our laws on capital punishment have changed as well. As to whether it’s more humane to keep someone in preventive detention for the remainder of their life, as opposed to capital punishment is a moot point.

In the end, both are death sentences.

One of the redemptive elements of capital punishment was that it confronted the offender with two things, first the severity of their crime, and secondly their imminent death. In the context of a Christian culture, it was hoped that both of these realities would lead the offender to repentance, faith, and hope for life beyond the grave. But of course we have lost that context.

As an aside, here in New Zealand our murder rate has skyrocketed since the abolition of capital punishment, and the secularization of our culture.

I wonder if there is any correlation.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

"As an aside, here in New Zealand our murder rate has skyrocketed since the abolition of capital punishment, and the secularization of our culture.

I wonder if there is any correlation."

I draw no conclusions, but did you notice a piece in this morning's Dompost reporting researchers arguing that capital punishment had reduced violence (specifically murder) over the very long term by breeding out criminal genes?

Brendan McNeill said...

“..researchers arguing that capital punishment had reduced violence (specifically murder) over the very long term by breeding out criminal genes?”

I hadn’t seen that Lindsay, but I find it to be a fascinating observation. It implies that a predisposition to murder is genetically determined. If that’s true, how could we justly punish any murderer when they were simply genetically programmed to behave that way?

Perhaps more to the point in our own context, what does that say about the prospects of rehabilitation of the murderer, and their reintegration back into society?

Furthermore, what can we possibly mean by ‘criminal behaviour’ if we are simply pre-programmed DNA drifting through space and time in a meaningless universe…

Actually, I think there are times when it is worth the risk of drawing conclusions, and this is probably one of them. ☺

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Article in Dompost referred to: