Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Death Penalty

Capital punishment. An issue I wouldn’t normally touch with a barge pole. But all on a sudden, it is constantly in the news. At home it’s Afsal and Santosh Kumar Singh. In the international scene, it is Saddam. Then there is that bungled up case of capital punishment by lethal injection in the US.

Death penalty, I guess, has been there ever since man evolved the concept of civilized coexistence! Guess it’ll be there till the crack of doom – in some country or other. Its raison d’etre is, allegedly, its utility as exemplary punishment, therefore as a deterrent. To what extent that objective is achieved, I do not know. But I guess I am not wrong in stating that there are many who keep themselves on the right side of the law for fear of having their heads chopped off.

Through history, capital punishment has caught the imagination of man. It has created Gods, saints, martyrs and heroes, religions, cults and revolutions. Pages of history and literature abound with anecdotes of how convicted men and women kept their rendezvous with death. One such anecdote that has never ceased to fascinate me is that one about Sir Thomas Moore who kept his beard away from the block, away from the executioner’s axe saying that the beard grew after his conviction, and therefore was innocent of any crime! Conquering the bitterness of death in such a manner defeats death but Thomas Moores are the rarest of phenomena. A story which has given me sleepless nights is that one about Bhutto’s resistance when officials came to the cell to take him for his execution.

My concern here is not whether capital punishment should be done away with or not. It’s too complex an issue for me to debate about. But there are certain issues related to it that have bothered me.

One such issue is the modus operandi of the procedure of state execution. I think the best way to administer the capital punishment is to shoot the person behind his back, without his knowledge, thereby sparing him the torture of the elaborate preparations like medical check up, soul protecting rituals and all that dead man walking type of elaborate practice. That cold blooded, efficient, business like observance of every laid down rule, the meticulous adherence to routine execution procedures where every official does his part to perfection in order to keep himself above blame, while the poor condemned man waits for the dreaded hour – I think that’s callous, cruel, heartless. If all these are signs of civilization, I would rather we remain uncivilized enough to place more value on sparing the victim the unbearable, brutal trauma than on the propriety of the details of the execution of the death sentence.

But what beats me even more is the revolting provision in the US system which permits the victim’s relatives to witness the execution of the death penalty! Absolutely barbaric, I would think. But we read about the cathartic effect this experience has on the victim’s close relatives! Does the sight of a human being vibrating in the electric chair, or that of a terrified man having his faced hooded before the lever is pulled to transport him to the nether world, or of terror stricken eyes of a person awaiting the lethal injection afford a sense of beatific satisfaction that justice is done? Or is it a sense of obligation to the deceased victim of the crime that makes them willing witnesses of these gruesome sights, as though they are participants in a ritual of divine retribution?

Does the term “JUSTICE’, then, mean facilitating gratification of that thirst for revenge? Would the memory of the security men killed by terrorists be better honoured if Afsal is hanged? Is baying for Saddam’s blood an indication of a high level of civilization achieved by human community? Does the belief that justice is done because Santosh Kumar Singh is sentenced to death reflect a proper understanding of the concept of justice? Don’t all these equate justice with vengeance? Does Justice mean an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? I thought civilization had advanced far beyond that primitive concept of justice.

Isn’t it written ‘Vengeance is mine, I (God) will repay?’ In no uncertain terms, don’t these words state that no man made system has the right to appropriate the right to take away life in order to wreak vengeance?

It is all about officialising and legitimizing vengeance; let us not glorify it by resorting to the euphemism ‘Justice’.

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