On capital punishment and violation of moral rights
The post contains links to disturbing content so if you’re having a good day or intend to have one, close the tab and move on to something else.
Troy Davis was executed this week in Georgia under bizarre circumstances. Details are here and here. The victim’s family claim he’s the killer, Troy maintained his innocence to his last breath. Witnesses recanted testimonies, courts stalled the execution thrice and the third time it went to the Supreme Court who then issued a unanimous verdict to disallow a stay of execution. And so Troy Davis breathed his last, with no one except the courts and Officer MacPhail’s family certain of his guilt.
On Twitter we lamented the fact that a case with ambiguity was allowed to result in the death penalty. Unavoidably, conversation drifted to the death penalty itself. I haven’t had to re-examine my views on capital punishment since “Dead Man Walking”. I’m a supporter of capital punishment and the movie made me question that point of view. My conversations on Twitter also compelled me to evaluate my stand and justify it. (That said, if arguments on the internet were capable of solving a problem, mankind would’ve ended itself out of boredom by now.)
I was swayed by graphic accounts of how capital punishments are conducted, the many ways they can go wrong, the suffering of the individual and the solemn, torturous ritual involved. But the only argument against capital punishment I found compelling enough to respond to is that it’s immoral. A violation of a person’s right to live. Regarding this moral absolute I completely agree that it is fundamentally wrong to take a life – whether it is the accused or the state responsible. However, if everyone followed moral absolutes, we would have no need for laws, much less capital punishment. So allow me to respectfully disagree with the morality argument because it only applies if everyone universally adheres to it. We don’t.
The reason we don’t (and I grossly oversimplify) is that the practice of absolute morality conflicts with reality where a living being has to compete for limited resources with other living beings. Only the self-actualized or the divinely ascetic may afford to live by a stringent moral code. The rest of us are fallible, selfish and those sentiments will eventually cause conflict. Conflict may be resolved peacefully or through violence. Laws help us formulate our response to such conflicts. Society, through laws, may impose minor punitive action, incarceration for a limited period of time in the hope of redemption or incarceration for life involving crimes of severity. In the rarest of rare cases, society may choose to rescind the right to live. I agree that the last statement smacks of high-handedness. But for me, there need to be three necessary conditions where state-sanctioned execution is understandable (never justified, only understandable)
1. Where the crime is of a brutal and unremorseful nature so as to set a precedent for the accused’s actions and intent
2. There is absolutely no ambiguity that the accused was responsible for the crime
3. There is a distinct possibility that freeing or keeping the accused alive carries significant threat to the citizens of that state
Point 3 is important because it carries with it the judgment of threat perception. During my discussion I brought up the example of Maulana Masood Azhar who was freed by the Indian Govt as a result of the IC814 hijacking. He reciprocated the government’s largesse by attacking its Parliament in 2001. I contend that the threat perception of Masood Azhar was high enough to warrant immediate execution by the government. He was high-profile, a planner for terrorist groups in Kashmir and hence directly or indirectly responsible for the loss of Indian lives. I also believe his death would have prevented IC814. Perhaps it would not have prevented any other retributive action but terrorism is about sentiment, not rationality. On the contrary a state’s policy should be to minimize immediate threat to its citizens, which is as rational as one can get when dealing with cowards who are unable to muster the courage to meet an army on open ground (yes, I know they fought the Soviets in Afghanistan but they certainly don’t seem to want to do the same anymore).
It has been argued that by the same yardstick a pickpocket should also be executed for fear of an attack by his associates. Theoretically, this is possible but so is an event involving an asteroid crashing to earth on my lawn containing evidence of extra-terrestrial life. The day I have to consider a pickpocket and a terrorist as equivalent threats is the day I pick up a weapon and go foraging for food because order would have ceased to exist.
So in effect, I argue for applying context to morality. Context matters, and that context is defined by an individual’s immediate circumstance or by a collective mandate, aka the law. If my neighbor stole my newspaper I’d probably want to have chat with him about it, not kill him. If my neighbor barged into my house with a gun and threatened my family I would be forced to retaliate appropriately. Similarly, if a person steals a wallet, society will tut-tut in disapproval and send him to jail. If a person kills in cold-blood, society is compelled to act accordingly because the lives of its citizens are at stake.
I consider the execution scene of Dead Man Walking a work of genius. I doubt Tim Robbins supports the death penalty but it takes courage to leave viewers questioning the righteous anger against capital punishment that has been built up throughout the movie.
As Matthew Poncelet is strapped to the table and prepared for receiving the lethal injection, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice gradually takes over the solemn build-up. The jailors are shown starting the process to administer the lethal cocktail of drugs to Poncelet and that is when the scene cuts to the crime that got him there. A horrifying rape and double murder executed with chilling disregard for the sanctity of life and limb. As the scene shifts between the crime and its consequence the viewer is forced to tear himself away from his morals and examine the role of context.
That’s all I intend to do when it’s a person’s life at stake.