Thoughts on death penalty
Following execution of Dhananjoy Chatterjee in Calcutta on August 14 2004
death penalty, capital punishment, crime, criminals
Tuesday, August 24, 2004 22:30 GMT
Some of the discussion about this issue has seemed to imply that there is some kind of absolutely natural progression from rape (or other violent crime) to the gallows. As if all that needed to be debated was the precise equation of equivalent suffering for the crime's victim and its perpetrator, and as if the mechanism of the second, reciprocal act of violence did not to be considered - as if it were abstact, sublime, other-worldly, semi-divine. If you see the question in this way then you will respect those who call for the greatest possible violence in the second instance, for it is only they who have truly grasped the scale of suffering in the first.
But the execution of a criminal is as much a moral act as the original crime itself, and those who support it and implement it must bear responsibility for it and not pretend that it is a wholly natural result of the criminal's actions. Having found myself in Calcutta at the time this execution happened and been confronted in the mornings with the obscene journalistic extravaganzas of sadistic, ghoulish, bloodthirsty glee, I find it very difficult to read this punishment as simply that - a punishment. Were the readers of those papers waiting painfully for thirteen years for the suffering of this girl to be finally answered, did they see the events of august 14th as a final closure to a community's anguish? Frankly, I think not. I think this was a state-sponsored festival of violence, unfolding with thrilling twists and turns to its final, inevitable, awe-ful display. And to me, such a festival of violence gives tacit consent to all the most perverted fantasies of the community, including the very desire to see other humans utterly humiliated and obliterated which lay behind the original crime. To me, such a celebration raises the stakes of violence in a society as a whole and is intimately connected to violent crime as perpetrated by individuals. It is not separate or above it; it is not an antidote or a closure.
As we know from contemplating the fates of grand architects of suffering, such as Milosevic or Hussein, there is nothing that a society can do to right the historical balance of suffering once it has happened. This is unfortunate - tragic even; but it is true. Suffering and death are facts which transcend the ability of human beings to make amends.
If you call upon the state to right the suffering of history by visiting equivalent suffering upon the perpetrator you are implicitly giving the state a transcendental role in human affairs. You are calling on it as previous eras called upon God to bring destruction and misery upon their enemies. But the state does not have a transcendental claim to power. It has only a pragmatic claim. It can make pragmatic decisions - to remove a violent man from social intercourse, for instance - but it cannot restore a community's innocence, or erase suffering. None of us can expect this from a human institution, and we should never give such an institution the freedom to act as if it had this transcendental power.
I don't think there can be a pragmatic argument for the death penalty. If the death penalty actually reduced the amount of violence in a society then America would be pretty much the most violence-free place in the world (after China and Iran). This is to say nothing of the fact, of course, that sometimes states execute people who are then found to be innocent. In this situation it really is tough for them to make amends.
Let not this discussion be cornered by those who support some idea of retributive justice, and who therefore see the grandest escalation of violence as the most just and humane. A Bushian "double blackmail" has taken over the debate to an unfortunate degree, and that it has no merit. It is a depressing, even maddening thing to have to accept that there is no total, otherworldly justice for horrendous crimes; but let us not become savage ourselves as a result.