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Tortured Logic

Denis Solomon • 1,108 words

It is argued that the mental torture is the result of a desire expressed in the legal system that every possible chance of acquittal or reprieve be given to the condemned person. This is irrelevant, since in even the quickest of executions the suffering is in the wait, not in the death.

It cannot matter whether you are alive or dead. If you are dead, by definition you are not able to worry about it.

Therefore the expression “death penalty” is inherently meaningless. A penalty is the imposition of suffering. An act that removes the capacity to suffer is not a penalty.

Three things follow from this. One, that the suffering imposed by condemnation to death is not the killing, but what precedes it: namely, the expectation of it, the ritual, the suspense (forgive the pun). Two, that any effects that may follow the killing must operate upon others than the person killed: his family, the judge and jury, the executioner, the society, and, to be fair to the retentionist camp, perhaps potential murderers as well. Three, that since death is not a penalty, all idea of reciprocity goes by the board. “A life for a life” is meaningless, and if death is to be imposed as a “penalty” for killing it might just as well, from the point of view of reciprocity, be imposed for parking in the Savannah.

Let us take these one by one. First, the lead-up to the execution. This is where the true barbarity lies. It means that whether the execution takes place or not, society is subjecting the condemned person to the kind of drawn-out mental torture which, if it were imposed in, say, a prison camp in North Korea, would be condemned as a crime against humanity. It is generally considered that when Dostoevsky was taken from his cell, put blindfolded before a firing squad and then returned to his cell, he was subjected to a refined form of mental torture. But if he had in fact been shot, we would simply have said that he was executed for treason, although the quantum of suffering would have been exactly the same, and although in the “barbaric” case his life was in fact spared.

It is argued that the mental torture is the result of a desire expressed in the legal system that every possible chance of acquittal or reprieve be given to the condemned person. This is irrelevant, since in even the quickest of executions the suffering is in the wait, not in the death. But even here there is a peculiarly Trinidadian twist to the torture we inflict. When a country contemplates abolishing the death penalty, as Britain did, the abolition-retention debate takes place in the legislature and in the society at large, and once the debate is officially engaged all those condemned to death are immediately reprieved as a measure of common humanity, even if the debate ends in retention (as in fact happened in Britain at one point in its penal history).

In countries which we recognise as civilised, and where the death penalty still exists, such as the United States, the duly convicted person is the centre of a battle between his defenders and the weight of the case against him, with all the gruesome theatricality of new eleventh-hour evidence, last-minute telephone calls from the Governor, etc. that we have come to expect. But the background to it is the operation of the legal system’s checks and balances.

In Trinidad and Tobago the constitutional debate goes on in the death cell itself. All governments have refused to bring the Prescott report to Parliament, because of its lousy quality and for fear of what the precedent of a free vote would do to party discipline as they conceive it. Instead, the legal authorities abandon the field of judicial and moral principles to engage in a degrading battle of wits with the abolitionist lawyers, in which they repeatedly order the death warrant to be read to condemned men in the hope that an order for a stay of execution will go astray in the middle of the night, or that a solicitor in London may not be able to reach the Privy Council in time. In this battle the condemned are political pawns and the Ministers concerned degrade themselves and their government.

Further, the intensity with which governments pursue their attempts to bring about a hanging is meant solely to impress the population with their determination to deal with crime, and to show how they are being frustrated by bleeding-heart abolitionists and the politicking of the opposition party, which in office behaves in exactly the same way. Never mind that hanging is a downstream measure that conveniently diverts attention from the far more difficult task of eliminating the social conditions that lead to crime; never mind that even if hanging deterred murder it would not deter anything else.

Which leads us to points two and three, which it may be as well to take together: the effect on society and the uselessness of death as retribution. If hanging has no particular inherent application to murder, which it does not, then any argument in favour of hanging for murder is an argument in favour of hanging for other crimes, since murder is not the most prevalent, nor even perhaps the most heinous, of crimes. Further, if the argument is the argument for deterrence, then public hanging should be more effective than private hanging. Therefore the question as to whether we want to live in a society that hangs for murder is exactly the same as the question of whether we want to live in a society that hangs for rape, armed robbery and assault. Indeed, who is to say that the government that claims hanging as a deterrent to murder may not by that logic wish to extend it to other offences. And the question of whether we want to live in a country that hangs, on our behalf, in private, is no different from the question whether we want to live in a country that hangs in public.

On what moral grounds then can we feel superior to Iran, where they hang in public, or Saudi Arabia, where they shoot or stone to death for adultery and behead for religious apostasy, or China, where they execute in public for economic crimes?

In this country we are addicted to the easy option, the line of least resistance, the quick fix. Where is the government that will have the moral stature to deprive the State of the easy, but false, option of hanging, as a first step in a rational approach to the solution of social ills? Where is the government that will wean the population away from its primitive what-if-it-were-your-daughter-who -was-raped-and murdered or why-should-we-pay-to-keep-the-bastards-alive attitudes, in the full knowledge that a more rational approach to this question means more rational scrutiny of all public questions, including the functioning of government?

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