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The Wimp and the Warrior

Denis Solomon • 1,744 words

In the hanging of Glen Ashby, the PNM government went even further, stringing Ashby up while his appeal was actually being heard, and breaking the promise of the Attorney General to the Privy Council that they would not do so.

The cliché about those who don’t study history being doomed to repeat it is exemplified daily in the issues that confront this society. It is apparently too much to expect that a new country would build on the experiences of others and carry the debate on such issues further than it had previously gone. The inability to do so is itself a sign of underdevelopment.

In the debate on the death penalty, for example, the arguments both for and against have been advanced in apparently complete ignorance of their staleness, of how often they have been used in the same situation in other societies.

A surprising, and disconcerting, exception is Burton Sankeralli’s article “An Eye for an Eye?” in the Express of March 19. In it he lifts the argument to a different plane by exploring the metaphysical (he would say theological) validity of the different positions, and implicitly asks the question why any position should be taken on any issue at all.

Mr. Sankeralli himself says that he can “do no better than pull together a few disconnected thoughts”, so he must not be condemned for inconsistency in an overall position he does not enunciate. But in each of his “points” there are inconsistencies that might have been avoided.

First, as evidence that the debate can never be settled he lumps together the question of whether judicial killing is “right” or “wrong” with the question of whether it is or is not a deterrent. The two questions are not of the same order in relation to the possibility of solution in the social context. “Right” or “wrong” cannot indeed be defined except in the light of some pre-defined and unquestioned theology. But in terms of social policy, it is not necessary to say that the death penalty is or is not a deterrent: the very fact that the question is unanswerable is an argument for abolition, on the grounds that the irrevocable act of killing should have no other basis than the certainty of its deterrence. Abolitionists, therefore, should confine the argument to its negative rather than its positive aspect: that given the infinite range of social variables deterrence is impossible to prove or disprove, and therefore must be factored out of the equation. Given that practically the only argument of the retentionists is deterrence, this puts the onus on them to find others.

Mr. Sankeralli’s second point is that he shares with the rest of humanity the thirst for the blood of murderers and (strangely, in the very next sentence) the more intellectual feeling that the State should make up its mind one way or the other. These two positions, both legitimate, are also not of the same order. The question of blood lust relates to the issue of whether the law should eliminate vengeance from the principles of social organisation and define punishment only as a means of maintaining order and achieving rehabilitation; or whether vengeance should be a recognised part of it.

Possible reasons for the latter position are put forward in Mr. Sankeralli’s next point. But as regards the State’s indecision, and the “manoeuvrings and machinations” of the abolitionist lawyers, which Mr. Sankeralli also finds distasteful, there are clear arguments, completely divorced from any philosophical considerations, that put the onus for this situation squarely on the shoulders of the government. If the government wants to hang, then the way to do it is to change those provisions of the constitution that enable the lawyers to “manoeuvre”; and yet no government has tried to do this. In fact, for reasons we will not go into here, all governments have studiously avoided formal debate on the issue. The Prescott report, for example, has not been put before Parliament by either the PNM or the UNC government. Which did not prevent a succession of PNM governments from informing the UN year after year that the matter was “under review”.

Further, in other countries where the death penalty is an issue, the practice is for all condemned persons to be reprieved while the debate is going on, even if the outcome is retention. This was the case in Britain. In contrast, in those states of the USA where the penalty is in force, the lawyers in individual cases move heaven and earth, enter appeal after appeal, to save their client from the gallows; there is all the gruesome theatricality of last-minute telephone calls from the governor; and then the killer is executed or reprieved. The State as such is not involved. But in Trinidad and Tobago, the terrible thing is that the debate and the fate of particular candidates for execution are one and the same; the debate takes place in the death cell itself, with the government, as a government, mobilised against the condemned man’s lawyers, reading warrants and hoping that a fax to the Privy Council may go astray and allow them break a specific neck. In the hanging of Glen Ashby, the PNM government went even further, stringing Ashby up while his appeal was actually being heard, and breaking the promise of the Attorney General to the Privy Council that they would not do so. No government, however strong its commitment to the principle of capital punishment, should descend to such indignity.

As for the “machinations” of lawyers, to suggest that lawyers should neglect even the smallest legal possibility (and they have no other) to assist their client is a very dangerous point of view, implying as it does that lawyers may choose at what point in the legal process they will call it a day and let their client sink. In any case, the lawyers only advance the arguments; it is the judges (i.e. the law of the land) that order the stay of execution.

The newest, and, for the abolitionist, the most disconcerting point Mr. Sankeralli makes is the one he directs at “religious abolitionists”. I think it applies to all abolitionists, and it is this: the principle of a tooth for a tooth, derived from the Old Testament, relates to “justice” not in the modern legal sense but in the sense of restoration of cosmic balance, and (though here his argument is less clear) the New Testament injunction against revenge applies to circumstances different from ours.

The theory of cosmic balance did not of course start with the Old Testament; in Western philosophy it is Hellenic in origin, and in Hinduism it is the doctrine of karma. But the gut question Mr. Sankeralli wants the abolitionists to answer is whether their opposition to capital punishment is rooted in moral belief or in personal cowardice – the fear of violence. I confess to having posed myself the same question. In other words, am I against capital punishment because I see myself in the shoes of the condemned man? Am I an abolitionist merely because I am a wimp? Is modern Christianity really the religion of the weak? Are conscience and compassion merely conditioned reflexes? When abolitionists call for the State to embody all the virtues of mankind, such as mercy, to a greater extent than any individual, do they not neglect to exact from it one of the greatest of virtues, strength of will?

This is the fundamental ethical question that Mr. Sankeralli’s article raises, and it is indeed one to which there can be no answer. Quite simply, there is no ultimate reason for following the path of mercy and compassion rather than the path of power and cruelty. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado, in person the mildest of men, could write “virtud es fortaleza, ser bueno es ser valiente” – virtue lies in strength, to be good is to be courageous. Bertrand Russell, pacifist and nuclear protester, describes in his History of Western Philosophy an imaginary dialogue between the Buddha and Nietzsche; the former suffering with the afflicted and the latter exalting suffering and its infliction as the essence of what he finds most admirable – strength and the will to power. Russell identifies with the Buddha but recognises that “I do not know how to prove that he is right...the ultimate argument against [Nietzsche’s] philosophy...lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions”.

But the will to power is also an emotion, and it may well be that while suppressing it may get the Christian to heaven, it is an essential component of the survival of societies. Conversely, nations that have “evolved” from predators into kinder and gentler societies may be signing their own death warrants. Francis Fukuyama of the RAND Corporation, in his book The End of History and the Last Man, sees social evolution as propelled by the individual’s desire for recognition by others who themselves must be conceded to have worth if their recognition is to be meaningful. As societies democratise, the struggle for recognition becomes more and more irrelevant, and Fukuyama’s “last man” is the dweller in a democratic society, with all his material needs satisfied, and deprived of outlets for his striving for mastery – for the exercise of the will to power.

It may be therefore that to survive as societies we need the feeling of power that harsh laws and vigorous state measures vicariously provide. This is certainly the case of the country that proclaims itself the leader of the free world, and whose bullying of Grenada and Panama is acknowledged to have restored the pride as a world power it lost in Vietnam.

But do we dare to say that countries that neither invade their neighbours nor hang their murderers are doomed to disappear? Is a Dane or a Belgian less of a complete man, or Denmark and Belgium less worthy states, for not adjusting their relationship to the cosmos by means of the human sacrifices that Mr. Sankeralli says sizeable groups in our own society demand?

If there is no a priori reason to follow one path rather than the other, we must then, in existentialist fashion, make ourselves up as we go along. The abolitionists’ wimpishness, if such it is, may then be seen as a cause and the wimp as a warrior, in a battle whose outcome is not killing but the prevention of killing. We are free to choose as our ideal of strength not Machado’s “good” man who “not only parries but wounds, and attacks without waiting to be attacked”; but rather those Shakespeare describes as “they that have power to hurt and will do none”.

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