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Hanging Circus

Kevin Baldeosingh • Friday 17 June 2005• 1,025 words

"Most atheists become so because they see the contradictions between what religions preach and what actually obtains in the world. Atheists thus tend to be persons with a low tolerance for contradiction and hypocrisy (hence the reason they are such a tiny minority in the world)."

Since the PNM regime announced its plans to hang every prisoner on Death Row, the worse side of Trinidadians has come to the fore. On the radio talkshows, callers are making comments so bloodthirsty that I, for one, almost despaired for my society.

The milder ones just want quick hangings; other callers want people hanged publicly and the bodies displayed all around the country; some even call for the murderers to be buried up to the head and stoned to death. It was very disheartening. But then I remembered that the callers to these shows take their cue from the hosts, and so behave like ignorant barbarians.

Ricardo ‘‘Gladiator’’ Welch plays to people’s worst instincts on the Gillette-owned Power 102FM, while George ‘‘Umbala’’ Joseph on the PNM-activist owned I95.5FM has begun misleading about the deterrent effect of the death penalty, claiming that hangings went down after the Chadee gang was executed. (It did, for two months, then rose steeply.)

Deterrence is, in fact, a point often raised in these diatribes. Those in favour of capital punishment argue that executions deter murderers, usually pointing out that the persons on Death Row don’t want to be hanged.

But this is false logic. The deterrence argument does not apply to persons who have already killed and been caught. It applies to persons who have not yet committed murder. The pertinent question, therefore, is this: Does hanging convicted murderers help stop persons who intend to kill? The evidence suggests that it does not.

In the United States, for example, those states which have the death penalty have murder rates equal or higher than the states which do not execute people.

As for the glib argument that hanging permanently deters the person hanged, the obvious reply is that life imprisonment does the same thing. To this, the pro-hangers usually ask why they should pay to fed and clothe a murderer.

The philosophical answer is that the society has a responsibility to that murderer because he, too, is part of the society that produced him. The pragmatic answer is that life imprisonment is cheaper than executions, because of the expense of the appeals process.

At that point, the hangers then say that the authorities should abolish all appeals — which, of course, just proves that hangers neither respect nor understand the law in the first place.

A more sophisticated — but therefore more dishonest — comment on deterrence has been offered by UWI lecturer Noel Kalicharan in a letter to the editor. Kalicharan argued. "No one could ever show that the death penalty had anything to do with the murder rate.

There are so many other variables involved that it is impossible to know. We can only surmise." In a very technical sense, this is true — correlation does not prove causation. However, to soften this hard problem, social scientists use an economics tool called ‘regression analysis.’ This is used to isolate particular factors when looking at a large set of data. So, for example, you can examine the size of the police force in different cities, while controlling for poverty levels, in order to figure out how the police force affects crime. Then you do the opposite, to figure out how poverty affects crime rates.

While this technique does not prove causation, it can suggest how meaningful a correlation is. And, contrary to what Kalicharan argues, the research tells us with reasonable certainty that having the death penaltydoes not deter murderers.

The fact is, any arguments offered in favour of hanging are just thin cover for the person’s true desire: retribution. But if the death penalty is not a deterrent against crime, then retribution is not a valid argument for the death penalty, sinc retribution can only be justified morally if it prevents further evil. And it is in this area — morality — that I have been truly flabbergasted by people’s arguments.

Anglican priest Clive Griffith, on a radio call-in show, said that executing convicted killers "shows respect for the sanctity of life." Obviously, though, if your principle is the sanctity of life, then you must also respect the life of a killer. That is why the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty (although, with typical hypocrisy, we have had no letter-writing campaign against the death penalty from all those Catholics who are so passionately against abortion). And if our religious leaders have such stunted moral sensibility, can we expect better from the average citizen? Indeed, on this matter, the Inter-Religious Organisation has proven its incapacity to provide real moral guidance to the country.

If citizens were educated about the pros and cons of capital punishment, I suspect we would see a drasti drop in the number of people who support hanging.

It would never be a majority, but enough people would be against it so that we could start changing our violent culture and taking action that would actually reduce the murder rate and other crimes. But this is not on Patrick Manning’s agenda and, in this regard, a glance back at ancient Rome is enlightening. Historian Jennifer Hecht, in her erudite, magisterial and immensely readable book Doubt, writes:

"In the several decades before and after the turn of the millennium, Julius and Augustus Caesar championed a religious revival to go along with their new, more authoritarian regimes...The Plebeians and the freed population of Rome outnumbered the Equestrian and Patrician classes, and often enough a large number of them could not find work and could not afford adequate food. In response, to keep the average Roman from revolting against the rich, Augustus legislated food prices so that the poor could manage their basic needs, and also began a system of free food — in the form of grain distribution. At the same time, he offered free entertainment in the form of chariot races, bloody gladiatorial combat, lavish spectacles in amphitheatres, and the Circus Maximus."

The poet Juvenal, in his fourth satire, coined the now-famous phrase "bread and circuses" to describe this strategy for keeping the citizens passive. It seems that some things have not changed in the past 2,000 years.

Copyright © • Kevin Baldeosingh • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/baldeosinghPage Top