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Charlotte Simpson is a writer and radio producer.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Why capital punishment is always, always wrong

This week the international campaign to persuade the State of Georgia not to execute Troy Davis failed. He was pronounced dead at 23:08 on Wednesday evening. The lethal injection took fifteen minutes to kill him.

The calls for clemency had centred on evidence throwing doubt on his conviction for the murder of a police officer. Mark MacPhail was shot dead in 1989 as he tried to defend a homeless man who was being beaten up in a Burger King car park. By anyone’s standards the murder was a cowardly attack on a good man. To fear that the State of Georgia has punished the wrong person for the crime does nothing to condone it or to disregard its hideousness. But even if Troy Davis were guilty – as many thousands of executed murderers surely must have been – the death penalty is abominable. There can be no exception.

Too much of the public discourse on capital punishment is pragmatic: is it or is it not an effective deterrent? How can we be sure that a conviction is sound? Doesn’t the state undermine its own value system if it kills killers?

But where are the moral voices in this debate? Why do the liberals only throw their support to the Troy Davises whose convictions are shaky? The photos released by Amnesty International of Troy Davis in prison show a thin, bespectacled black man. He looked young, vulnerable and gentle. American society produces many victims, his picture seemed to say, not just those who are hurt by criminals. Hundreds congregated outside the prison where he was killed, praying for a last-minute reprieve. I added my voice to the campaign and felt terribly sad when I heard the news of Troy’s death.

But why do we weep only for Troy? Is state-sanctioned killing only wrong when its target is someone who’s easy to care about?

Another man was executed for murder this week – in Texas. In 1998 Lawrence Russell Brewer chained a disabled black man to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged him along a road until he died. Brewer was a member of a white supremacist gang. There’s no suggestion that his conviction was unsafe. And, unsurprisingly, there was no vigil outside his prison.

Liberals always struggle to tolerate the intolerant. Brewer’s was the sort of crime that really gets under the skin of people like me. He’s not the kind of person we want to ally ourselves with. But we need to stand up and make the case that capital punishment is morally wrong – no matter how dreadful the crime and no matter how watertight the conviction.  In making any argument we must attack our enemies’ strongest bastions. It’s too easy to go for their weak points. (Too easy to win the battle intellectually that is. Tragically for Troy Davis, it’s doesn’t help to win the argument if those in power aren’t listening.)

For many, we’re told a majority in this country, there can be no justice for the murdered unless their killers’ lives are taken from them; to talk of the human rights of murderers is an insult to their victims. It’s as if we need to do something – make some great gesture – to give vent to the tremendous sorrow and revulsion that we feel when people do ghastly things to others. If we don’t respond with the ultimate punishment then we clearly aren’t taking the crime seriously enough. Those who say that the death penalty is uncivilised – those who search for the humanity in even the most vicious criminals; who reach tentatively for some kind of redemptive response to evil – often stand accused of caring more about the perpetrators of crimes than their victims.

But where will taking an eye for an eye lead us? Surely there’s enough suffering in the world without deliberately inflicting more. The desire for revenge is quite natural but it is seldom helpful. Ask any relationship counsellor for the secret of a happy marriage and they’re unlikely to suggest that you make sure you avenge everything your partner ever does to upset or irritate you.

Nobody I’ve loved has ever been murdered. I can’t imagine how I would feel if they were. I hope I wouldn’t abandon my beliefs and cry for blood – but quite possibly I would. So would I be right? Does being the victim of a horrible injustice guarantee you the moral high ground? Of course not. In fact at the height of the natural grief and anger that a bereaved person feels, I think it’s their prerogative to throw rationality to the wind. Those who have lost loved ones through crime have a very clear focus for their rage – but terrible heart-rending suffering is always with us. Families are ripped apart by cruel diseases and natural disasters. These families feel rage too but they don’t have the right to manifest it with a dramatic act of vengeance.

Moral convictions are as much about gut instinct as rational argument. Deep down I will never support the death penalty because I don’t believe that it is ever right to injure another person with the primary intention of  killing or hurting them. We might wound someone in self-defence when our first aim is to incapacitate them. A doctor might amputate a limb when not to operate would hurt the patient more. And soldiers or civilians may be injured in military action when they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. All these injuries are unfortunate but we would not hold the perpetrator morally responsible if the surrounding circumstances showed they had no alternative. But there is something so totally different about causing deliberate harm to another for no end other than ‘because they deserve it’. We do not have to execute people. We can protect society through permanent incarceration. It is the deliberate and quite needless infliction of suffering and death.

When the State of Texas executes someone by lethal injection they make a record of their final statement – they note down what they say as they die. Here’s an example. Steven Woods was executed this month for murdering a 21-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman and then stealing their car keys and a mobile phone. These are his last words:

“You're not about to witness an execution, you are about to witness a murder. I am strapped down for something Marcus Rhodes did. I never killed nobody, never. I love you, Mom. I love you, Tali. This is wrong. This whole thing is wrong. I can't believe you are going to let Marcus Rhodes walk around free. Justice has let me down. Somebody completely screwed this up. I love you too, Mom. Well Warden, if you are going to murder someone, go ahead and do it. Pull the trigger. It's coming. I can feel it coming. Goodbye.”

This is a record of a person dying. He didn’t need to die. He wasn’t ill. He was strapped down and injected with poison. If guilty, then Stephen Woods committed an appalling crime. His victims didn’t deserve to die. They died innocent and he died convicted of murder.

But I believe that my hatred of capital punishment doesn’t show that I am soft on murderers or lacking in compassion for victims – rather that I abhor murder. I believe that violence, sadism and brutality are the lowest and most repulsive elements of human behaviour. Every murderer who can close off their compassion as their victim pleads for mercy has behaved in a way that I honestly can’t describe and don’t even dare imagine. Many murderers must have believed, in their own twisted world-views, that their victims deserved to die. Some probably imagined that their actions were right. And as their victims cried out in desperation they closed their ears. They showed no compassion. Their inability to show pity for their victims is surely what separates them most from normal society.

Because society is not made up of murderers. We do not and we should not close our ears to cries of pain and desperation – whoever they come from. Suffering is a moral evil. It should never be caused as an end in itself. I can’t read those final statements of prisoners gradually succumbing to the trickle of poison through their veins without thinking of people in the room with them who just stood by and watched and wrote down what they said. 

1 comment:

  1. Very, very well said.

    Morally I agree with you wholeheartedly and share an unwavering view - one of my few unwavering views - that capital punishment is appalling and wrong in all circumstances.

    I also agree - if this is what you were implying - that, as callous as it might appear on first inspection, seeking or acting on the views and wishes of victims' families when deciding on crime and punishment is probably close to being the last route you should take, save for asking those found guilty.

    My only substantive comment is that, like Michael Moore, who also disagrees with the death penalty for moral convictions, you sometimes have to take on your enemies at their level. "Attack[ing] our enemies’ strongest bastions" isn't, in my view, always effective. Or at least it doesn't have to be either or.

    In his otherwise iffy Stupid White Men, Moore picks apart the economic argument against America's Death Row, for which the legal costs of fighting appeal upon appeal against convictions that result in death far outweigh the cost of life imprisonment, for which there would be far fewer appeals.

    This approach sticks in my craw as much as I'm sure it does Moore's. But I can't remember the last time British or American voters were won around on a moral argument (well, not the type of moral argument that you and I agree with at any rate).

    Whether we SHOULD be striving for a society in which the first angle of any debate is the moral one is another matter. And I happen to agree that we neglect that angle too often.

    But kick-starting a different approach generally with a debate on the death penalty specifically won't, I fear, get us very far; not, of course, that we shouldn't try; we just need to argue in terms our opponents understand as well.

    As an aside, I do wish we in Britain would take a harder line against regimes that retain the death penalty, like we do with dictatorships. To me, not having the death penalty is as important if not MORE important than having democracy. Faced with the choice, I'd rather live under a benign dictator who banned capital punishment than under an injection-happy governor of Texas.