Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
I’ve been thinking a lot about steak-frites. Soft, bloody, barely-seared meat with fat running from its ribeye, salted potato, tarragon-heavy Béarnaise, and some decent petits pois Grandmère. Not only because I’m going to be in France for the rest of the week, but also thanks to recent reminders of the vitality of capital punishment.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Mohammed Morsi have both just been sentenced to death. One, a teenaged terrorist, part of a fraternal gang of two, who placed his cooking-pot bomb behind an eight-year-old. The other, a deposed president, briefly seen as the success story of the Arab Spring. The latter’s sentence was confirmed by a religious leader, in a country whose flirtation with (terrorism-based) democracy was quashed by the return of military rule, and where human rights are in free-fall. The former’s was determined by the federal court of a country claiming to lead the developed world.
Death is incomprehensible. It’s the absence of life, and the end of possibility. It’s nothingness, not another valedictory milestone. And, no matter how clever we’ve become, how much we can learn from Wikipedia, we still don’t know anything about it. Where do we go when we die? Umm, we don’t go anywhere, do we? We’re not ‘we’ anymore.
Surely, it’s this end to existence – this substantial change – with which we struggle. The, ‘Can I get a self-charging iPhone for my coffin, in case I wake?’ And the swabbing of the inmate’s arm with antiseptic before injecting pentobarbital or sodium thiopental.
In the midst of life, the uncertain certainty of death is an easily exploitable fear. How acceptable it is to use this returns us to classic antagonism between the state and the individual: the extent to which we abdicate liberty in order to gain corporate security. The death penalty is the ultimate form of state control – and the ultimate form of state protection. (Some might argue that torture has more potency, but there’s not time to discuss that here.)
Debate abounds as to whether, and in which combinations, punishment should aim for retribution, restitution, or deterrence. And – particularly when dealing with a penalty as irreversible as death – surrounds its efficacy, not just in terms of the message sent to other potential criminals. We’ve all read about the innocent people who have mistakenly been killed, and the occasional sickening failures of the methods used. (If you haven’t, you should – sorry, in advance.)
But – like the specific atrocities of those facing this form of punishment, and whether the ability to commit these atrocities might better place them in need of medical help – failures aren’t the point. If people keep breaking the speed limit, we should educate them more and enforce it better, not change it! Laws should be put and kept in place because we are convinced that they are right. We must hope for the continual refinement of our country’s justice system, wanting to make it as fair and good as possible.
Yes, apocryphal support for capital punishment is often used to decry referenda. Guy in pub: ‘Ha, but if we allowed everyone a say on stuff, we’d bring back hanging, yeh?’ But recent polls suggest that Britons are decreasingly in favour. And shock, rather than satisfaction, has resounded at Priti Patel’s seeming refusal to deny her previous pro-death penalty position. On topic, I’m convinced that Michael Gove’s one-time advocation simply exemplified the journalistic use of a sensationalist position to strengthen a quite different argument.
It is difficult – even for those who currently support it – not to consider the eventual abolition of capital punishment a sign of a country’s progress. Most human rights organisations uphold this as a leading goal for society. In 1998, the final civil and military exemptions (treason, piracy, mutiny, etc) from Britain’s 1965 Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act were removed. The 6th Protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights enforces this stance for member states of the Council of Europe.
To me, the correctness of this comes down to the difference between necessity and luxury. Taking another’s life can – sometimes – be a necessary act for an individual or state: during moments of self-defence, or war. This doesn’t make it good, but it does make it justifiable, at the time. It should then also be examined and judged in retrospect. The state’s role is to protect its citizens; when it’s the only option, it is acceptable for the state to do this by killing others, which is why war can be right.
(The difficulty with the Tsarnaev case is the complication of modern terrorism. Might this make our Just War Theory dated? Should he have been tried as a war criminal? A prisoner of war? An enemy combatant, in a time of war? On limited reflection, probably no.)
Regardless, from the position of relative luxury – with space to think in safe surroundings, and your potential victim already under arrest – how can killing someone be necessary? Death shouldn’t be playable; it’s not just another option. To end another human being’s life is, as someone once said, to end the world.
The casual, Akond of Swat-esque approach of ‘Would you rather be chopped in pieces, or hung, or shot?’ or, ‘What would you like for your last meal?’ is wrong. It’s calculated. It’s an abuse of power. It’s why you thought my opening paragraph was in bad taste. America should know better.