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Friday, September 23, 2011

I am so grateful

This is a subject I intended to write about many months ago, but I guess the execution yesterday of Troy Davis in the State of Georgia USA has forced my hand, because I can’t get it off my mind until I do.

  This isn't about Troy Davis in particular. I don’t want to go into the details of that case, as they’re all there online. Davis is dead, going to his execution pleading his innocence, and in the face of strong revulsion by vast numbers of Americans and others round the world. Nothing that happened yesterday has changed my mind about the death penalty.

  There have always been two very contradictory things about capital punishment for me. One is this. If anyone did something that deliberately caused the death of someone close to me, and even worse, did so in a cruel and abhorrent way, my immediate reaction would be that I would want to see them dead. I would want to do terrible things to them. I would want them to suffer just like my loved one did, or worse.

  I would crave revenge.

  Everything dark and destructive in me would rise up and I would embrace the worst possible torture I could think of.

  I would become a mirror image of the murderer.

  That would destroy everything I value about myself as a human being. I would become no better than they. No, not one iota. However poisoned such an event would make my life thereafter, there is nothing in revenge that would satisfy me for more than one brief moment.

  Don’t try to tell me that would be enough, because I know it’s not. Argue that this would be my right, and your logic is that he is no more culpable for what he has done than if I had got my revenge, because he has been made what he is by his past, just as I would be by his action.

  That’s why I captioned this ‘I am so grateful’. What I’m grateful about is that I live in a country that saves me from that fate. In a case like this, assuming I didn’t get to the perpetrator(s) first in my rage and grief, the law would save me from the blackness of my crime that would dog me the rest of my life.

  If the perpetrator were arrested, the law would deal with the matter. It would be out of my hands. Cooler heads would prevail. The court would decide on the penalty, and that penalty would not include the destruction of my status as a human being.

  That’s a society that has at least one of the pillars of civilisation. This is why we have a legal system. It is never up to individuals to take the law into their own hands unless, like Gandhi, they do it knowing the penalty and are prepared to pay it.

  The lynching party is never justified. When the shockjocks call out the citizens to take matters into their own hands, they should also tell them they are responsible for everything they do when they break the law (as, indeed, are the shockjocks for incitement).

  Civilisation depends on this principle – that the law decides the punishment, not the individual. It is the bedrock of civil society and without it society teeters on the brink. Yet its decision to include the death penalty implicates every one of us in state sanctioned murder of the most cold-blooded type. 

  It might be argued that the legal system could still do its job and have capital punishment. It could take the responsibility for the penalty away from the individual. 

  I’m not interested in the arguments in favour of this, as I know them off by heart, and none of them should ever convince a sensible human that the coldly calculated execution of a human being does anything uplifting for humanity. None. It does the reverse.

  What I find staggering is that those people who call themselves Christians and invoke the Old Testament to justify an eye for an eye, forget everything Jesus taught about the destructiveness of revenge. I know well that the principle is ingrained in the Judaic and Muslim traditions – here I part company with them as well as a minority (I hope) of Christians who have the blindness to ignore their own New Testament precepts and still justify the virtues of revenge. 

  The abandonment of the death penalty is one of the great hallmarks of civilisation. Those states that use it when it serves no moral purpose don’t have the right to call themselves fully civilised. State sanctioned killing as revenge for a crime is as inhuman as the act for which it is made the penalty. 

  Even worse is the travesty when an innocent person is executed. Thanks and glory be to the wisdom of our past political leaders on this. Most of the time they drive us mad with their antics, but that time they got it right.

  The last person hanged in Australia was Ronald Ryan, in 1967, and there was a huge outcry at the time. It took till 1985 to get it removed from the legal code completely. Yet still we have those who would bring it back. It is no deterrent. It doesn't even save money, as the appeals process costs more than a life term in jail.

  They probably would have hanged Lindy Chamberlain if they could. Hanging was still legal then, but humanity prevailed, as did the law, which finally set her free. 

  The stench of Troy Davis’s state sanctioned murder is still in my nostrils.
NOTE: there are other cases I would like to have mentioned here, but I decided against it. They include the gruesome murder of James Byrd by Russell Brewer, executed in Texas the day before Davis in Georgia, Australians currently on death row in Indonesia, Barlow and Chambers in Malaysia (1986), Ronald Ryan, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1953), the multiple travesties in Southern USA, China.... but it’s too much for now. 


  1. Yes, thank you for reminding us of this uncivilized behaviour -and that's what I think it is. It's a reflection of the most emotionally immature, unwise aspect of humanity, this state sanctioned murder. It sickens me, such calculated cruelty.

    Enough cursing (by me!) hmm, Mr Pedantic, is a'brief moment'different to a 'long moment'? Can you really have either, or is it like saying 'very unique'?? Heheh. xx Julie

  2. Very well said - I agree absolutely. I also know as you say that if a family member or (shudder) one's child was a victim of a horrible crime, it would be natural to want revenge and want the criminal dead. But that doesn't change all the reasons a modern society should not be doing it.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I have reflected on this for 'long moments’ (!) since I wrote it. I know there are many who will not agree, because the idea that some are so past redemption that 'hanging is too good for them' is so deeply ingrained. This is partly why we have the pitiless tit for tat in the Middle East at the moment, abetted by their sponsors outside the region. One can only think of the clichéd epithet from Gandhi, ‘An eye for an eye sends the whole world blind.’ Then again, it’s interesting to note that the death penalty has always been on the books in Indian history as well. In spite of all the wisdom in Asian philosophy, Asian rulers have never shied away from using it, and pretty summarily at that. Even Buddhist ones.

    I also think of it in family terms. Imagine if you said to your child, 'I won't beat you now, this morning, but at 7 pm tonight you're going to get a good strapping. That's when I'll tell your father and he's going to give it to you as soon as he gets home.' Imagine the destructive psychology behind that for all concerned!

    Think for a 'long moment,' hey Julie! You got me there. Maybe, poetically, there are 'long moments'. And maybe I'm just trying to weasel out of using a superfluous word....

  4. "Just wait until your father gets home!" I guess that's a bit like waiting for your execution.

    Since we do not know what happens after death, how do we know that it is a punishment to execute a convicted criminal? It could be a liberation.

  5. Joan: the warning to kids of impending doom is also a horrible imposition on poor old Dad - not that it ever happened to me either as child or father.

    I think after 20 years and 4 stays of execution for Troy Davis, even if he were innocent, I suppose it would be some form of blessed release. I can only hope so.


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