Go BackClose WindowHomett.humanist :: forum :: articles :: solomon :: execution

Discourse Of Death

Denis Solomon • 978 words

In May 1999, after trying for three and a half years, the UNC government succeeded in hanging nine men over a four-day period. The (earlier) pageant referred to was the Miss Universe contest held shortly before at Chaguaramas.

So what do we do for an encore?

There could be no clearer proof of the degree to which capital punishment brutalises a society than the post-Pageant pageant that has shifted public and media attention from the Chaguaramas hangar to the Frederick Street hanger.

Though it might be more accurate to say that this third Carnival of the year was so readily welcomed because of our pre-brutalisation by practically every aspect of public life in this country, from politics to education to religion to language.

And the media’s part in the process was enough to make one sympathetic to Basdeo Panday’s claims about undesirable programming, were he not himself a prime factor in the dissemination of coarseness and insensitivity in practically everything he does, from verbally abusing reporters to embarrassing the President of Ghana. Who can forget his statement that it would be all right for the State to hang innocent people as long as it paid compensation?

The media have failed the country by both commission and omission, both by what they did and by how they did it. They failed in their duty to initiate a debate on capital punishment long ago, to compensate for the corresponding failure of both Government and Opposition. Both parties in the legislature are content to debate how to hang people without first debating whether people should be hanged. Both maintain that “the people” want the death penalty without determining whether this is true, and even if it is, deciding whether it is desirable.

The present government claims, with patent falsehood, that the Prescott report shows that the country wants hanging, but neither it nor the previous government, which commissioned the report, will bring it to Parliament.

Such debate as there is is not about hanging but about who will get credit for it. Each of the parties, to frustrate the other, refuses when in opposition to support the proposals that it made itself when in government. The PNM even panders to a marginal constituency by hanging a man illegally, not for the murder he was convicted of but for one committed by someone else. The Attorney General criticises as “frivolous and vexatious” constitutional motions based on fundamental guarantees that he cannot persuade Parliament to revoke, and which are therefore neither frivolous nor vexatious.

None of this is brought out on the radio or television. Their commentators are seized neither of the philosophical pros and cons of capital punishment that have been ventilated in so much debate in so many societies, nor of the evidence on which they are based, nor of the political intricacies of the issue in this country. The value of programmes like TV6’s Town Meeting and TTT’s Issues Live panels is vitiated by their obvious sensationalist intent, taking place as they did only on the eve of a multiple hanging. One or two members of the audience were percipient enough to point this out.

In the press, columns like mine are swamped by a combination of sensationalism and editorial vengeance-peddling. Not one newspaper is editorially against the death penalty. Every time I write on the subject, I can hear in my mind the same groans of “there he goes again” from an unreflective public that must greet every appearance of poor Ishmael Samad with his placard outside the State Prison.

So much for omission. The sins of commission were the sensationalism, glibness and downright ignorance of reporters and commentators, their refusal to approach the issue with anything but the superficial hype with which they address every event from fashion shows to limited overs cricket. Power 102’s Round Table programme with the female relatives of the condemned men was given the grandiose title of “The Women They Leave Behind” and advertised with the same glitzy bounce, indeed in practically the same sound segment, as the “Father’s Day Humorous Calypso Show”.

In their call-in programme on the eve of the hangings, when it was uncertain whether last-minute constitutional motions would be made on behalf of the condemned men, and if so what chance they would have of succeeding, Dale Enoch and Tony Lee were so ill-documented about the issues and procedures that they even groped unsuccessfully for words to describe them. Not once did they use the words “Constitutional motion”, “application” or “appeal”, and as for exploring possible grounds for the motions on the basis of what had gone before, forget it. What they were describing was a penalty shoot-out between the State and the defence attorneys, not the life-and-death manifestation of a political, moral and philosophical issue of the deepest importance to Trinidad and Tobago.

The media, like Government and Opposition, are playing their own selfish games on the heads of men about to die. But in the case of the media the inability to find the right tone, to treat the situation with at least the dignity of form that it demands, is linguistic as much as anything. Part of our national crudity is crudity of language, a limited range of styles that makes hyped-up pseudo-American the only form of radio discourse and “amazing scenes are witnessed” writing the only medium for newspaper reporting.

It was bad enough for the TV6 morning programme to have a reporter outside the prison to provide updates, as if a test match were drawing to an exciting close. It was bad enough to be told that Chadee had spoken no last words, had not put up a struggle, and that he would be left hanging for an hour. But when we were told that Ramiah would be “the next man up”, we were suddenly in the middle of a World Series baseball game.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomon Page Top