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

Death and Self-Esteem

Denis Solomon • 1,201 words

The greatest shame of the death penalty, though, is what it says about the country that imposes it. One of the things it says about us is how much we hate ourselves.

The barbarity is starting again. In Jamaica, preparations are being made for the execution this week of Lansford James, Henry McCoy and Samuel Lindsay. In Port of Spain last Thursday, the death warrant was read to Gerald Wilson who, had he not changed his mind about appealing to the Privy Council, would yesterday have been dropped through a hole with a rope about his neck.

Whatever happens to Wilson, Attorney General and former death penalty opponent Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj has assured the supporters of hanging that necks will be broken (if their owners are lucky and they are not slowly strangled instead) before the end of the year.

Those who base their support for the death penalty on the theory of deterrence make much of an instance some years ago when a murderer is said to have boasted, as he committed his crime, that he couldn’t be hanged because hanging had been stopped. These same people do not seem to be impressed by the argument that if death is a deterrent, the thought of life imprisonment (especially in our prisons) ought to be a deterrent too, even if a lesser one. Do they really see a person saying, in all sincerity, that he will kill at the price of life in a filthy jail but not at the risk of execution?

Furthermore, those who proclaim the deterrent value of the death penalty do not seem to notice that the hanging of Glen Ashby, followed by the present Attorney General’s predictions of the resumption of hanging and the abolition of delay as a ground for reprieve, has not reduced the murder rate. Perhaps they think that murderers do not read the newspapers.

Gradually, however, even the supposed utilitarian argument is being abandoned in favour of pure appeals to blood lust, disguised as “concern for the victim”. Even lawyers have been heard to advance this view, though none can explain what rights victims can have if, by definition, they are dead, or what rights their families can have that are denied to them by the murderer not being hanged.

If the families of murder victims have rights deriving from the murder, then the families of executed murderers must have rights deriving from the execution. Any other argument would make people responsible for the crimes of their relatives.

The blood lust that calls for the death of murderers for its own sake seems to go hand in hand with the prevalence of evangelical religion. Professor Maureen Cain, recently of the UWI at St. Augustine, and a fervent opponent of the death penalty, called Trinidad and Tobago a country of “deep spirituality”. She evidently did not see any connection between the religious fervour she described in that phrase and the fervour of the majority of the population in support of punishment by death. Someone should do a survey to compare adherence to born-again Christianity and other charismatic sects with enthusiasm for hanging. I have a strong feeling the correlation would be positive. The same blinkered certainty that enables people to swallow metaphysical nonsense about heaven and hell enables them to disregard the sixth Commandment in favour of eye-for-an-eye savagery.

The greatest shame of the death penalty, though, is what it says about the country that imposes it. One of the things it says about us is how much we hate ourselves. I cannot forget Boysie Prevatt saying to me, when I was a Senator and he was leader of government business in the Senate: “What allyou fellas doh understand is the kinda people we dealing with in this country”. (By “allyou fellas” he meant the Tapia House Group). I had to point out to him that no government deserved to govern that did not assume that the population it governed was the best in the world. In the words of Lloyd Best, we have to see ourselves as belonging to the first world, not the third.

Our attitude to the death penalty is partly the result of our failure to do this. Those who support it are not troubled by the fact that other countries have successfully abolished it; even if it is not needed there, they reason, it is needed here, because we are a different kind of people, and that is the only thing that will keep us in check. Never mind that it doesn’t keep anything in check – by the same token of inferiority, we are dispensed from the exercise of logic.
It also says something about our attitude to each other. I was always saddened, during the apartheid era in South Africa, by the number of black Trinidadians who objected to sanctions against that country, and supported the action of the black cricketers who broke the sports embargo for the sake of money. The white South Africans they knew, they said, were “nice fellas”. Since the speakers were invariably middle-class, what this really meant was that they identified more with white than black society in South Africa, as in fact they do with the white section of all other societies, starting with the United States. In Trinidad and Tobago terms, this was, and is, reflected in a view of themselves as a privileged minority beleaguered by a lower stratum of faceless potential murderers to be kept in place by hanging and flogging. Such a view of oneself must, however, inevitably be accompanied by a suspicion of one’s own inferiority to the models one imitates. The psychic emancipation achieved by Macaque in Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain still eludes most of us.

The abolitionists’ argument that the poor and black have a much greater chance of being hanged for murder is as hackneyed as the retentionists’ argument about the rights of the victim. But it has the advantage of truth. We hardly even pretend that a light-skinned middle-class killer does not have a better chance of getting a quick trial, a lesser charge, a lighter sentence, or even an acquittal, than a poor and black one. Brad Boyce may have deserved his acquittal. But who can put their hand on their heart and say he would have got it had he been poor and black? Until we can all do so, we have no right even to think about putting killers to death.

Basdeo Panday and Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj are both on record as being personally against the death penalty.They are both personally convinced that hanging does not reduce murder. They explain, or explain away, their attempts to enforce it by saying that they are doing the public’s will. But they would surely not claim that leaders must never do unpopular things for the sake of moral conviction. What more worthy a reason for following moral conviction than a matter of life and death?

“Doing the public’s will” by hanging murderers is simply an easy way out of the much more difficult task of tackling the multiple causes of crime. No government can claim to be morally honest unless it voluntarily deprives itself of this cheap recourse. Basdeo Panday and Ramesh Maharaj did not make the law imposing the death penalty. Their efforts to activate are not statesmanship but opportunism. The real statesmanship would be to repeal it.

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