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December 30, 2006

Barbarism revisited

A shade over year ago I wrote this post about the death penalty, occasioned by the imminent execution of a young australian, Nguyen Tuong Van.

In it I observed that the death penalty in and of itself, regardless of the victim is barbaric. In principle. In an of itself. Divorced from arguments of its efficacy (typically specious when investigated with any rigor), its very existence demeans us all and diminishes our humanity, and our civilisation.

It's difficult to imagine a better candidate for the death penalty than a hated tyrant, willing to liquidate individually and collectively tens of thousands, perhaps many more.

But, as little lamented as he will be, by me or just about any one else, I must, in all integrity, register my protest at his imminent execution. I find it pretty much impossible to feel any particular personal sympathy for his plight, nor the consequences to those who might conceivably be close to him, the way I certainly did for Nguyen, and his close family.

But the death penalty is always wrong. It always diminishes us, as individuals, and as a civilisation. Its day will pass, and future generations will wonder at our barbarity.

December 30, 2006 | Permalink


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John, I completely respect your stance. I have to disagree, though. Especially in this instance.

Posted by: Patrick | Dec 30, 2006 4:07:31 PM

I may have a piece of my humanity missing...
I wept for Nguyen Tuong Van. But, I feel such total hatred and anger toward people like Catherine and David Birnie. Is there was ever a point where a person forfeits the right to life? After 18 years in prison David Birnie self administered the death penalty.

Dead Man Walking (1995) directed by Tim Robbins is an amazing film that explores this terribly confronting issue. Well worth watching but have the tissues handy.

Posted by: rosemary | Dec 31, 2006 1:03:04 AM

For me, the very importnt thing to do is to separate out our persoal, often wholly legitimate feelings of revulsion, fury, and revenge, from how we as a society respond to such events and actions.

There are at least three levels to the issue.

One is a matter of principle - there are many like me who simply on principle, oppose the death penalty in any circumstance. There's not really much debate here - if in principle you don't think the death penalty is always wrong, that's a completely different position, but there is no debate betwen those who adhere to either position - that's essentially the nature of principles.

Second is the rational debate about the efficacy of using the death penalty as punishment. Typcially, liek many emotionaly driven debates, these aren't particularly rational debates, rather than rhetorical exercises in justifying our principles - which is one of th emain reasons I resist debating the issues.

The third level is our visceral human response to other people's barbarism. We must accept (unless we are creationists) that as humans we have evolved over a long period of time, and that evolution has most likely almost entirely been unaffected by the rise of complex societies since the agricultural revolution about 10,000 or so years ago.
So, our psychology, and emotional response to circumstances are very poorly adapted to living in complex societies of millions of interconnected people. To me, this is precisley why we must strive to use reason above rhetoric and appeals to emotion, when solving complex societal problems. Unfortunately there appears to be a significant short term advantage in appealing to our evolved emotional responses (for example, the strong sense of group that translates into a sense of "national" identity, and at its most extreme, open racism) in democratic politics.

I do't think that this is going anywhere soon, which is why, to put it bluntly, our planet is in serious trouble.

Posted by: john Allsopp | Jan 1, 2007 12:47:38 PM

I think you could add another point John - the illogicality of saying to society "it's wrong to (directly, or indirectly in the case of drugs) kill, so therefore we're going to kill you if you do it". Either the taking of a life is wrong, or it isn't. Nobody should have it both ways, government or not.

Posted by: Deb Lander | Jan 1, 2007 1:46:53 PM

I'm of too minds about the death penalty (typical libran!). On one hand I think getting rid of the murders, rapists and similar scum is a good thing - why should society have to pay the keep these individuals alive, well fed, entertained for their long sentences. On the other hand I though I believe that were the justice system makes a mistake, and lets face it they do occasionally, the finality of a death penalty prevents an innocent individual that was killed from being freed.

Posted by: Bryan | Jan 1, 2007 2:04:27 PM

I'm firmly in the camp of no death penalty whatsoever.

I agree with Bryan's "other hand" about innocent people being executed by mistake, but disagree with his "one hand". The reason we should pay to keep these people alive is to remind ourselves of what it is that makes us civilised, the very principles that allow us to decry barbarism, anarchy, terrorism and torture. Permanent incarceration is a greater deterrent than execution - to everyone.

It's no coincidence to me that the same "leader of the western world" that allows state-endorsed execution (in some states) will also condone torture and inhumane imprisonment, even it means stepping outside its own laws.

I agree with John that on the bases of ethical principle and efficacy as a punishment, the death penlty is insupportable. The third element of emotional response is (for me) the strongest reason for rejecting the death penlty. The side of me that thinks the world would be a better place if any individual person was dead is the one that needs to be controlled, to allow me to continue to develop as a human being.

To paraphrase Deb, it doesn't make sense to punish blood lust with blood lust.

By jingo, you give good topic, John.

Posted by: Ricky | Jan 2, 2007 2:07:29 PM

Thanks all for the thoughtful comments.

I think the way the sentence was carried out probably underscores the barbarism of what is involved. There are no good executions.

I was waiting for a coffee yesterday morning in my local cafe. I overheard a comment from a women probably in her 60's, with her family. She seemed quite conservative at a glance. And yet, she strongly expressed he objection to what occurred, calling it "barbaric". I could only silently agree.

Posted by: john Allsopp | Jan 2, 2007 10:10:43 PM

There are lots of things about Saddam's execution which made me ill, most stemming from my revulsion of the death penalty for the reasons given above by my husband and sister. However this was particularly horrible especially because Saddam will not be much mourned by most of the world. Because he was a bad guy it was seemingly alright to show his walk to the gallows, to publish photos of his corpse, to describe his last seconds in minuscule detail, to link to videos of the whole thing captured by mobile phone. Ugh, was anyone else reminded of a snuff movie?

This will sound cliched, but my overall impression as a mother is that Saddam too was once a toddling baby, learning his first words, banging his head when he fell over, going to his mum for cuddles. How can we rejoice when someone's child - no matter how despicable - is judicially murdered?

Capital punishment is never the right option, this execution perhaps did not make me cry as did that of Van Nguyen, but it made me feel just as ill as all the rest.

Posted by: Sara Lander | Jan 2, 2007 10:55:13 PM

I agree with Sara about showing of the execution, it just isn't something we need to see. I can't imagine wanting to watch this, ever, irrespective of what he did to so many people.

When I heard of its being recorded on mobile phone it took me back to that unfortunate day, September 11 2001, and subsequent images appearing on the front pages of newspapers showing people jumping out of the buildings. To this day it still revolts me that they stooped so low as to show that.

Posted by: Bryan | Jan 6, 2007 9:29:46 PM

Hi there,
I was reading both your comments, and others, on the death penalty. I was wondering whether you might be interested in taking a look at a poem I wrote called 'The Death Penalty'. My web address is www.poetrywithamission.co.nz

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