Why death penalty is immoral

If we think that by hanging Kasab we have taken care of our national security, we are sadly mistaken



Killing someone is not an occasion to celebrate. Indeed, rejoicing as a nation at the killing of someone, even if he is a dreaded terrorist or criminal, shows the moral degradation of that society. If anything, the detailed, blow-by-blow account of the events relating to the hanging of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the terrorist who shot scores of innocents in Mumbai on 26/11, and the ensuing ‘widespread celebration’ thereafter, are deeply disturbing and forces one to reflect over crime, punishment and moral progress in our country.

Death penalty as spectator sport
Popular reactions and the jubilant media coverage of the ‘secret execution’ of Kasab bears an uncanny resemblance to the use of death penalty as a sport in 18th century Europe, intended for purposes of deterrence and to demonstrate the might of the state. Public execution of condemned prisoners even earned the state some revenue as spectators had to pay to witness the gory sight (there were of course no TV channels that could boost up their TRP ratings then!). The Taliban in Afghanistan as well as some other countries continue to use the method of public execution. Killing of criminals by the state, in public or private, negatively affects the moral core of the society as it clearly violates the sanctity of human life. More so, there is a thin line between the use of death penalty for deterrence and public execution as spectator sport as both the acts end up legitimizing the killing of another human being. What is problematic here is the killing of a human person; legitimate or not depends on the moral order that one lives in. In any case, empirical research has shown that death penalty only kills the criminal, not the crime. There is no correlation between the two and so we have to conclude that deterrence cannot be the logic behind the death penalty.

Meaning of justice

One of the major claims made by the supporters of death penalty is that by awarding death to the perpetrator of a heinous crime the state is providing justice to the victim’s families. While this is a powerful argument, one fails to see how killing the criminal can provide justice to the victim’s family. Notwithstanding the fact that the state, as per this line of argumentation, is seen as a ‘contract killer’, what it actually does, on many occasions, by killing the criminal, is ‘compensating’ for real justice that it is unable/unwilling to provide. The EU memorandum on death penalty, for instance, says: “capital punishment should not be seen as an appropriate way of compensating the suffering of crime victims’ families, as this view turns the justice system into a mere tool of illegitimate private vengeance.” In other words, most states limit their provision of justice to awarding death to the criminal instead of a) providing material and psychological support to the victim’s families, b) ensuring that such crimes are not repeated by adopting preventive measures, and c) understanding the sociological, psychological and economic contexts which created the criminal in the first peace and addressing them.
Killing a criminal is easy, but preventing crime is a complex process that the state is often unwilling to undertake. Theoretically, therefore, it is even possible to see a positive correlation between the extent of a state’s inability to protect the lives of its people and the severity of the punishment meted out to the criminals.

Society and crime
Those advocating capital punishment often tend to imagine that crime is committed in a social vacuum, and claim that crime is essentially social deviance.  A more sophisticated understanding of criminal behaviour would require us to see it as a result of social conditioning and the moral, political, and psychological conditions that the doer of a particular crime finds himself or herself in. The tendencies to overlook this important sociological aspect of crime and, more importantly, self-righteously isolate the rest of the society from the criminal lead to an unproblematised understanding of crime and criminal behaviour.
Supporters ofdeath penalty should consider for a moment that those who do good deeds are not born with better genes; they just happen to be exposed to better social conditioning and conditions. The argument here is not intended to deprive individual humans of their moral agency to choose good over evil, but rather to point out that in many cases, social conditioning and conditions have a great role to play in the making of a criminal.  Take the example of Kasab. Much of the information available on the 26/11 terrorist suggest that he comes from a social background where being a jihadi and waging jihad in the name of Islam are seen as laudable. Indeed, the religious indoctrination he was subjected to clearly convinced him that he was engaging in a noble endavour in the name of God. While that does not justify what he did, it certainly enlightens us on where our focus should be if we were to eradicate terrorism from our midst.

Why modern societies should not kill

If one is persuaded to agree with the argument that societies can not absolve themselves completely of the crimes that criminals commit, then it is only logical that societies should not only take part of the blame but also should adopt such methods to rehabilitate criminals which does not involve the violent removal of the criminal from the society. Moreover, states and societies have no right to play ‘God’ not just because societies have to accept part of the blame for the crimes in their midst but more importantly because by giving the state the right to kill individuals, we are erroneously awarding the state absolute power over our lives which in the long term would have significant negative implications. Gone are the days when we thought that our rulers and governments were infallible; today we know that they habitually make mistakes.

Fighting terrorism
It is increasingly understood today that the phenomenon of terrorism symbolizes the moral, political and philosophical challenges that our societies face; the gun-wielding terrorist is a symbol of a larger socio-political malady. The only way to defeat terrorism or extremism is to fight it politically and with the power of ideas. By merely killing the individuals who are, in a sense, as much victims of their ideology, we will not be able to defeat terrorism. It’s time our governments realized that we can’t defeat unconventional and ideological threats such as terrorism and religious extremism using conventional means of discipline and punishment. Our ‘war’ on terrorism has to start its fight from the root causes as well as address the sanctity for violence that exists in our societies that gives rise to terrorism in the first place. Indeed, symptomatic treatment of such a deep-rooted malaise will prove to be counterproductive.

India and the global norms
India as a nation has always prided itself in being one of the few islands of liberalism, tolerance, enlightenment values and non-violence in the developing world. Practice of death penalty is undeniably one significant blot on the collective conscience of such a forward-looking society. At a time when most of the contemporary international community is moving towards delegitimizing death penalty, India, by executing Kasab, seems to be going against the world opinion. Moreover, by hanging Kasab, we have discarded our own self-imposed moratorium on death penalty. A country that has long struggled to advocate a moral international order, based on the visions of Gandhi and Nehru, and one that now wants to be a major norm maker of a reformed and egalitarian international system should have a more liberal and humanitarian approach to crime and punishment. Fyodor Dostoyevsky once observed, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”. The continued presence of archaic forms of punishment, including death penalty, can also tell us a lot about the moral character of our societies. Regrettably, India failed to be on the side of nations that voted to adopt a recent UN Resolution asking states to put in place a moratorium on executions in order to eventually abolish the death penalty.

The politics of Kasab’s hanging
The Congress party, under whose rule both the 26/11 carnage and the hanging of Kasab took place, has not, thankfully, exhibited any triumphalism after sending the Pakistan-born terrorist to gallows. While that is commendable, what is missing from the debate generated by the hanging of Kasab are questions such as how 26/11 was allowed to happen in the first place and what improvements have hence been put in place in the national security management of the country to take care of the crucial lapses that made 26/11 possible. The Mumbai police and the Union Home Ministry had claimed after the 26/11 attacks that they would make the Indian coast impenetrable to the country’s enemies. Clearly, nothing much has happened on that front, various media reports suggest that. If we think that by hanging Kasab we have taken care of our national security, we are sadly mistaken.

Lastupdate on : Sat, 8 Dec 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 8 Dec 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 9 Dec 2012 00:00:00 IST

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