Friday, 29 February 2008

Old Thoughts

I found this old post of mine from 6th November 2006, which I don't think I ever actually posted anywhere. Since I don't have anything interesting written for today, I thought maybe I'd share it:

Yesterday Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death by hanging for crimes against humanity. For someone who opposes the death penalty, this was an interesting test of how that philosophy works in extreme cases. Saddam is probably the closest our society has to a living Hitler-figure. There are other dictators and leaders who have committed similar crimes, but in terms of public perception, the fall of Saddam Hussein could be seen as an analogue of the events that might have followed Hitler's capture at the end of WW2. I use the reference to Hitler as someone who people bring up in arguments about morality and ethics. If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you? The world has now been asked would you kill Saddam if you had the chance?

So should Saddam have been sentenced to death? I don't believe so. Quite apart from the moral issue is the fact that sentencing such a figure to die, rather than letting the media of the world watch him grow old and frail, brings up the serious possibility that he becomes a martyr, or at least provides a focus for his former followers. The sight of a former powerful figure of fear and tyranny as an old man, withering away into nothing could provide a far sterner test of his followers' faith in his ideals than the dangerous idea that he was brutally slain by the West.

However, even discounting this argument, I do not believe that a sentence of death should ever be given. Such a sentence is too final, too absolute, for a society that is not built on absolutes. Wherever a legal process takes place, however careful the rules of the court, however many chances to appeal there are, ultimately the desicion of guilt or not comes down to the judgement of a human being. One person can hold another's life in his hands. Such a decision is not something that should balance on whether the juror is feeling unwell and wants (however subconsciously) to get home for the day. It should not balance on a magistrate that, however objective they try to be, cannot possibly remove themselves from their upbringing. It should not rest on someone who cannot make an absolute decision. I would argue that no human can claim to do such a thing and so no human should be allowed to make such a judgement.

My argument is not against the system of justice that exists in many places in the world, far from it. Of course the arguments above still stand if the conviction is life in prison instead of death, but such a sentence is not an absolute. No one can be given back the years that are taken away by a wrongful conviction, but, if the verdict is quashed, they can be given their future. No one who is wrongly executed can ever be given anything again.

What is the intention of the death penalty? Is it a deterent? Studies have repeatedly shown that it does not act as one. Indeed, with a death sentence hanging over them, surely a criminal would be more willing to kill in order to escape capture. If they know that they are facing the ultimate sentence, where is the motivation for restraint? Is the death penalty a punishment? Society enacting vengence on those that have wronged it. If this is the case, then where is the consistency? Someone who kills out of revenge is punished by society by being killed? But who will punish society for this killing?

Surely the point of any kind of judicial system must be to keep members of a society as safe as possible by taking unstable elements out of it and either making them stable again or keeping them out. To execute someone is to say that there was no way that they would ever be able to add anything to society. That no matter how much they grow and learn and change, there was nothing that they would do at any point in their life that would be helpful to society. That they were so dangerous, that even to keep them alive was too much of a risk. That they should be removed permanently and absolutely before they could do any more damage. I would say that this is how someone a society has deemed worthy of death should be described, and yet I would argue that these terms are too strong for many of those facing execution around the world. For the majority of death row inmates, these words are not appropriate.

But we come back to the original point: surely, in extreme cases, there can be no argument against the appropriateness of the death penalty. There can be no serious doubt over Saddam's guilt, so surely there is no fear of a miscarriage of justice. He is not a small time criminal, he is a lifelong killer, so this is not an issue of rehabilitation. I would say that this is a matter of drawing lines. How sure do we have to be about someone's guilt to kill them? How many people in a state have to agree before the state is able to morally kill one of it's citizens? I would argue that there is no such number. If we say 99% then why not 98? If we say that Saddam killed 100,000 people, then what if he had only killed 90,000? A man in America can be sentenced to death for a murder that if committed the day before (when he was still 17) would not have resulted in his execution. What changed in that day? What changes when a person kills 2 people rather than 1 or 3 rather than 2? What is to stop a judge ruling that abortion is punishable by death, since it is murder? Euthanasia? Terrorists? Freedom Fighters? Rebels? Political Opponents?

However you define your terms for executing someone, you have to draw a line and say that the people on this side of the line deserve to die, while the people on this side do not. I do not believe that such a line exists outside of human conception. I do not believe that within human conception, any two people would draw the line in the same place. Ultimately, I do not believe that any society should give itself the right to deal out absolute punishment based on an arbitrary line in the sand.

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