Saturday, 5 May 2012

Capital Punishment

Should a State allow capital punishment or not? Probably one of the most debated topics of all time may be next only to 'Love Marriage vs Arranged Marriage' and 'Does God exists or not?' I think the last two questions has reduced considerably in recent times. But realized death penalty is still a lingering question after  its discussion in BBC program 'The Big Questions' a few weeks back.

As I see it, in general there are three sides to the discussion on capital punishment. First is the 'victim's side' - the victim and his/her family and friends. Second is the 'convict side' - the convicted person and his/her families. The third side, arguably the most dangerous side - 'the audience side' - people who are no way related to the case directly or indirectly, but just witness these events through media and eager to provide an "expert" opinion without actually living through it like the victim or the convicted.

Few arguments that's often placed by the audience against the capital punishment are 'Nobody has the right to take someone else's life', 'Capital punishment is an inhuman act', 'Every person deserves a second chance'. When such arguments are placed, there are some questions to ponder.

When a country is at war, is it right to kill the 'Enemy of the State' ? ('Enemy of the State' because the enemies here are not decided by the individual. This clip from Ab Tak Chhappan around the fourth minute talks about it precisely). Comparing killings at the war front and death sentence might not look appropriate, but they are objectively equivalent - taking a human life. Though both have a similar outcome, isn't it strange that we despise one as an inhumane and ornate the other with awards?

Similarly the famous quote by Gandhi "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" is often used as a defence against capital punishment. This quote appeals to the masses easily and gains a lot of support like Gandhi himself. But when such quotes are placed under a context, they might not necessarily have the same appeal. Here is a context.

In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: "What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?" I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the "you're another" type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer's Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence." After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly.1

After reading Gandhi's view on Holocaust, does the above quote still retains its charm? Should the Jews had followed Gandhi's view which is along the lines of "An eye for an eye.."? If Hitler was caught as a Prisoner of War, should he have been given a second chance? These are some questions to ponder for those who oppose capital punishment in the 'audience side'.

Now coming to the proponents of capital punishment in the 'audience side', the usual arguments are of the kind that 'Punishment deters crime', 'The convict loses his right when he violates others rights', 'Its justice done'. For arguments along these lines, my first question to them is 'How sure are they that the convicted was proved without any doubt?'.

Not all cases are self evident like 'Kasab's Trial' where there might not be much to prove. But in most other cases, I think that, its not possible for the audience to know the entire truth about the case. The audience's knowledge about the case could be based on media reports and hearsay and their opinion could also be influenced by their prejudice. The media reports are not always reliable, as each one of them carry a version of its own. For example Patrick French's story about the 'Aarushi murder case' is quite different form the stories in main stream media3. This is a classic example for 'what we know Vs the truth'. So how do we know what the truth is?

I think the answer is, except for some clear cut cases, there is no way for some one in the audience side to know whether a convicted person is the real criminal or not. Even if it is proved in a court of law, we often see that a judgement by the lower court is overturned by an higher court. So without knowing the truth should we really advocate death sentence for someone?

Now assuming that somebody is proven beyond doubt and is ordered to execute legally, will the supporters of capital punishment be ready to do the honors in their own hand on behalf of the Government, society or the victim? Being on the receiving side, it wouldnt be a surprise if the victim or victim's family wouldn't hesitate to execute, but from the audience side, I really doubt4. If it is only a right thing to do, restores justice and deters heinous crimes shouldn't they be able to do it like doing any other good deed to the society? If they cannot execute on their own hands, then what is the reason? Is it because they dont want to get blood on their hands but fine as long as some poor chap does it5?

Now going back to the original question, should a state allow capital punishment? With what I understand, I don't think there is a one size fits all solution for this. A blanket 'Yes' or 'No' might not help I guess. I think it should be only  handled at a case by case level and as much as objectively possible.

When it comes to individual cases, its better if the audience doesnt promote mass movements about whether the convict should be executed or not. For, what we know about the case might not be the truth at all. Moreover how much ever one can empathize with the victim or the convict, its never the same as actually being a victim or the convict. Tinkering with their emotions could only make it worse for them. So a better thing to do is to let the parties involved along with the system of law to judge on how it should be handled rather than we promoting a decision based on our "expert" opinion.

References & Links:
1. Reflections on Gandhi by George Orwell -
2. 12 Angry Men -
3. India - A Portrait -
4. But not for the likes of Hazare -
5. Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkuthu - A perspective from the eyes of an Hangman -


bharat said...

Gr8 writing da!

Naanthaanga said...

Thanks da :)