Where is Thy Sting?

By Hudson Kingston

Why do governments kill people?

Ignoring the extra cost and unequal application of the death penalty for a moment, what are the justifications for keeping it in a democratic society?

Incapacitation, deterrence and retribution are touted as the goals of criminal justice. Incapacitation of the perpetrator is obviously effective, the dead person cannot wrong anyone ever again, yet life imprisonment without parole would be as effective. As to deterrence, practically speaking, it becomes more and more difficult as fewer and fewer people are executed, lowering certainty for potential perpetrators.  Retribution remains, if somehow a final pardon belonged to the victims – yet to the extent the victims are kept out of the discussion it is impossible to say that the punishment is meant to serve them. If the system is not responsive to victims’ retribution then it can only carry out the state’s retribution, or a type of revenge.

The world’s biggest democracy (population 1.2 billion and counting) just executed a terrorist, its first execution in eight years. In utmost secrecy, India hanged the only surviving perpetrator of the 2008 Mumbai attacks (in which 166 people were murdered). India notified the man’s family in Pakistan but until the deed was done there was no public statement. Is it possible that this was meant to assuage victims’ families? Possibly, but not certainly. The most visibly involved were the politicians who lined up to one-up one another expressing their joy.

Considering that terrorists take orders from zealots more often than not, normal criminal deterrence is unlikely to operate here. Terrorist activity should therefore not react to infrequent extreme punishments, no matter how brutal. So how does India maintain its policy of extremely infrequent and questionably deterrent/retributive punishment?

Flatland, a novel, presented a formula of execution back in 1884. Flatland is a two-dimensional world governed by logic, following a strict caste system among the inhabitant shapes (circles being in charge). The government metes out death regularly based on clear policy; some punishable offenses include the use of color (which once lead to revolution) and knowing any state secret that could foment revolt. Also, members of the serf class (isosceles triangles) are regularly shackled in elementary schools and allowed to starve to death. This is not a punishment, however, as it serves the goals of helping children learn their geometry and lowering the population of peasants. Flatland is thus governed by a predictable brutal order, unjust but equal.

In the real world Singapore is a small country with an oversized reputation for capital punishment, and it is a scintilla more democratic than Flatland. It is difficult to fully know why the country kills its people, because while it is an unquestionably regimented society, it will also imprison you for asking the question. It has a mandatory death penalty for possession drug offenses, which in the absurd extreme means that people die for unknowingly carrying an unidentified bag five feet. By removing discretion from the system the deterrent effect is assured, though horrific.

In the United States the death penalty has gone from a public spectacle to becoming a secret ritual, done at night behind fortifications. Californians recently confronted why their state kills people and narrowlydefeated an abolition referendum. This outcome even though the evidence shows that the death penalty costs California huge legal fees and does not function at all rationally.

Either one’s execution policy can be equal and effective, or “just” to the point of being wholly illogical. It seems that both California and India might rise to another level and shuck a concept that no longer works. Admitting you have a problem is half the battle.


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