Against the Death Penalty

Before you trash this article as propaganda, let me make it very clear. This is simply an article trying to openly address the question that we, as a nation, and more importantly, as a race, as a species, as a civilization, need to answer. Can we justify and, to that extent, actually kill another human being? I’m probably an abolitionist, although I confess I do not have any material research to back my opinion herein. Simply certain musings and thoughts from my mind.

The death penalty (also called capital punishment) is punishing a criminal for an offence by inflicting death. It has existed for ages, yet as of today, it has been abolished in 139 countries across the globe. The methods maybe different and include, but are not limited to, hanging from a noose, shooting, administering death inducing drugs, stoning, and passing electric current through the body.

To ease my mind of my problem with the death penalty, and with regard to this entire process, I decided to write this article, working on an assumption that death penalty is a valid penalty and should be administered. I figured if I can poke enough holes in the very idea of the penalty, I will be able to conclusively answer the question.

Here’s why I struggle to grasp this idea: Every justice system in the world functions on certain basic assumptions and human constructs. The judicial system is vested with power by society to punish an offender according to the crime he/she commits. Society as a whole is more powerful than the sum of its individual parts. This power gives it the authority to back the sanctions the judiciary deems fit. The entire construct and the subsequent systems it creates strives to create a system that is fair, equal and just. For a second, let’s keep the definitions of those terms aside, we’ll get to them later. Let’s focus on the sanctions these constructs bestow upon a system. The sanctions seem ideal until the idea of a death penalty is invoked. That’s when I personally see issues with the system. Why? Well, for starters, the idea that a heinous crime deserves a heinous punishment is a flawed analysis. Say for example X kills a person. It is universally acknowledged as a wrong, subject to exceptions, which are obvious (self-defence for one), but in ordinary circumstances, is a universal wrong. X deserves to be punished. Agreed. So let’s kill X. This is what I struggle with. Quid pro quo sounds good for commercial transactions and barters but logically, it simply doesn’t make sense in a criminal system, designed for a civilised society, which emphasises on reformation and restorative form of justice, rather than endorsing retribution. If X killing a person, under whatever circumstances, is wrong, then how is killing X justified? One may say that it was X who committed a murder in the first place, and that offers a justification, and that’s reason enough to go ahead with the capital punishment. There are a few issues with this:

How different are we from X if we kill X?

X killed the person for a reason. He had a reason for it, which he deemed enough to warrant killing. He was punished for it, with capital punishment. We killed X for a reason. We deemed it enough to warrant killing. But we won’t be punished for it as we have the authority vested by society in us. Now, let’s examine something. Does society have the power or authority to legitimise killing? Every other incident that society regulates, either through morality, religion, governments, legal systems or any other route is an instance of regulating constructs that are human-made. Life is not a human creation. I don’t mean the act of creating life, but the prolonged idea of life itself. I don’t care if you believe in evolution or the divine theory, but the fact remains that we cannot create it (again, I emphasise, that life in this particular context is not just the creation of a biological being in the literal sense, but the entire process i.e. the experience of life, participation and interaction in the environment around a person etc.) or restore it or duplicate it. We simply cannot. We take away someone’s freedom; we can restore it. We take away someone’s life; restoration is not even a possibility. The action is permanent. If X is given the capital punishment, X shall cease to exist, and can never be brought back. Now this where the common argument comes in, “if he was heinous enough to do it, then he deserves it.” “He didn’t think about the person/people he killed, ergo he deserves to die”. This is where the idea of capital punishment develops internal inconsistencies and logical fallacies. So the assumption of validity rests on the idea that we as a society, are punishing an individual from deviating from a set of ideals laid down already. For the sake of argument, I am assuming these ideals are set in stone to ensure a utopian society that is again, fair, equal and just. But giving into the argument mentioned here means deviating from the ideals of society and adopting the ideals taken by X him/herself. Confused? Let me simplify. X kills 100 people by bombing an apartment building. Our reason for inflicting the capital punishment on him/her is that he/she didn’t care about them, so we shouldn’t care about him/her either. Well, if X is getting the capital punishment for killing people without caring about them, shouldn’t we be getting the capital punishment as well for killing X without caring about her/him? What puts us up on the moral pedestal that protects us? If the answer lies behind the fabric of legal and social sanction, we effectively create a major issue. Let’s address the problem behind claiming a socio-legal backing i.e. an argument rooted in majoritarianism. I shall address majoritarianism later in this piece as well, but in this context, the risk it poses is of us being non-uniform in our justice system as reformative legislations or provisions, or pushing for changes to ensure effectively address the question of equality and discrimination, lose steam by accepting this argument as most of them do not have societal backing, in terms of number.

X should be killed because society wants that

This argument is a dangerous proposition in itself. The very idea of doing something simply because ‘society’ wants it scares me, because it is bloody dangerous. Think about it. I think all of us agree that everyone has a unique thought process. Everyone has different ideas and different opinions, and in most situations, complete consensus is an impossible ideal. So firstly, when the above-mentioned argument is raised, it stems from an assumption that the majority’s opinion is de facto everyone’s opinion. This proposition is scary as accepting it involves a blatant disregard for minority opinion/rights and leaves no room for alternate thinking. To sample a real life example, here are a few things from the past that the majority believed was ‘right’ – slavery, racial discrimination, imposing taxes on a religion that is not the ‘majority’ or ‘not in power’. These examples are proof that the second assumption, which is that the majority’s opinion is always right, is a delusional assumption. Something that directly flows here is the scenario wherein everyone (both the majority, and assuming a consolidated minority) agrees upon something. Would that make the act acceptable? I still think my answer remains no, as from where I look at it, life, or rather the right to life, is a fundamental guarantee every human being has by the virtue of her/his birth. Let’s address this argument next

X should be killed because even the fundamental right to life has restrictions like other fundamental rights

This argument has one flaw. It places the right to life as a fundamental right at par with other fundamental rights. The right to life is one which is not granted by society but which an individual possesses by virtue of his/her birth. The right to equality is a relational right i.e. it exists in a society, in conjunction with others. The same goes for other basic fundamental rights such as the right to freedom etc. The right to life is an absolute right which one possesses in isolation from everyone, and even in conjunction. The part that is in conjunction with others, deals more with the quality of one’s life, and its nature, while the absolute right is simply a guarantee of not being killed. It is not granted to someone simply because they are a member of a society or citizen of a country, but by the mere fact that you are born as a member of the species homo sapiens.

Something that I have not addressed here is the element of guilt: whether or not an accused is guilty of the offence. That is because this entire argument is based on the idea that there is no offence that warrants the death penalty, hence there is no element of guilt involved. In fact the idea of defining certain offences as ‘worth awarding the capital punishment’ introduces elements of being perfectly assured and completely sure of an accused’s guilt, which is an unachievable goal. The idea is to separate the concepts of guilt determination and sentencing. At the outset, the idea is to ensure reasonable punishment. No one is denying the guilt of a prisoner who has been convicted after due process. However, that element has to be separated from the sentencing of the convict.

Another obstacle I encounter is being confronted with whether someone from my family has been subject to a crime that warranted the death penalty, and would I argue for non-imposition of the death penalty for the accused then? Here’s the deal. Call me naïve if you want, but the very fact that we have a mind capable of understanding logic and reasoning is what makes us human beings. I know it is idealistic to say this, but there have been many situations when people have shown true humanity by arguing for non-imposition of the death penalty for those accused of committing heinous crimes against their loved ones. Again, here the idea is to ensure reasonable punishment. The argument is in favour of the maximum possible punishment, say life imprisonment, but mine, or anyone else’s conviction against the death penalty arises from rationality and logic, hence anger and rage are not factors that should be playing a role in changing it.

What I am trying to say can possibly be summed up like this – Taking life, under no circumstances, including State-sanctioned ones, can ever be legitimate. I realise this article in itself is subject to criticism and probably has multiple flaws, or leaps, in logic. But the very purpose of this article is to express an opinion, maybe an ill-informed one at that, but an opinion nevertheless, because when it boils down to the life of a person, every last bit counts.

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