Anyone who has ever read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment has undoubtedly developed a greater understanding of at least one (in this instance fictional) perpetrator of the greatest crime – murder.
Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, arguably Dostoyevsky’s most famous character, is a desolate student living in St Petersburg. His nihilistic distaste for humanity and a belief that he belongs to a different kind (he thinks of himself as an extraordinary man who can transgress moral laws), leads him to -- in his eyes justifiably -- murder a hated pawn-broker.
He is, however, not able to live with his internal conflict and spends the majority of the novel in a psychosomatic cycle of fever and paranoia, which eventually drives him to confess. Raskolnikov never doubts that the murder of the old woman benefited humanity, and his eventual repentance has nothing to do with the crime he had committed, but with the resolution of his alienation from the rest of humanity through his love for the pious prostitute Sonya. In Siberia, he starts his rehabilitation.
I have never forgiven Dostoyevsky for not letting us know what the rehabilitated Raskolnikov was like. Not because I wanted to know weather the old master thought rehabilitation possible, but because, throughout the book, I hoped Raskolnikov was going to avoid falling into the hands of the all-knowing investigator and keep roasting in his own guilt. His agony was enough of a punishment, I thought. And I felt great empathy for his human condition.
Had Dostoyevsky put Raskolnikov to death, I would have been an unhappy reader. Not because I particularly liked Raskolnikov – I didn’t. But because his death would have closed the cycle of evil and general pessimism about the human nature on which the book was premised. The closing of the said cycle (evil breads evil, tragedy breads more tragedy, death results in more death … and there is no reformation, redemption or rehabilitation) is one of the key reasons I don’t like the idea of the death penalty. Even in literature.
The European Union this week marked its first official Day against the death penalty. Its stance is based on the premise that the death penalty itself represents a violation of basic human rights, specifically of the right of all human beings to live. All 27 EU members have signed and ratified Protocol No 6 against the death penalty in peacetime, unconditionally abolishing the practice. The Europeans have further argued that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime and allows for terrible miscarriages of justice.
Two weeks ago, news agencies around the globe reported that five men were executed in Iran for raping and robbing 13 women. Those present at the public execution of the three of the five perpetrators seem to have overwhelmingly supported the punishment.
Around the same time, the UN War Crime Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced former Yugoslav Army colonel Mile Mrksic to 20 years in prison for his role in the torture and massacre of some three hundred residents of Vukovar, who sought refuge in the Vukovar hospital during the Croatian war in 1991. A second, lower ranking officer, was given 5 years, and the third officer indicted on the same matter was freed. They cannot be given the death penalty. The verdict caused outrage in Croatia where popular sentiment was followed by the country’s political leaders who announced an official protest. The question the victim’s families want answered is whose right to life and whose right to justice takes precedence.
In the case of the EU, it is the right of the perpetrator of the crime (whatever crime that may be). In the case of Iran, it is the right of the victim of the crime (whatever crime that may be). (I acknowledge that the statement made here does not take into account weather the hangings in Iran have the rights of the victim or deterring further crime as their primary objective).
And then, there is our own debate about the three Bali bombers sentenced to death for their part in the blast that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. Is the question of supporting or not supporting the death penalty for them the question of philosophical orientation (the death penalty does not leave any space for the perpetrator to repent and reform, and it doesn’t respect the human rights of the perpetrator), or is it the question of Biblical justice (eye for an eye)? Is it the question of whose rights take precedence – those of the victims or those of the perpetrator? And can a concept of humanism also involve and satisfy equal rights for all – in this case, both the victim and the perpetrator of a crime?
Personally, I cannot but believe that repentance and reformation are possible. Without it, it would be hard to even contemplate life in the human community/society of any kind. However, I also believe that the victims of crimes don't "waive" their rights to life or justice just because they have, in some tragic set of circumstances, become the unfortunate victims of crimes.
But I also believe that by killing the perpetrators, we “relativise” their crimes, allowing the cycle to repeat itself. The problem is how not to relativise the right of the victims (or, more specifically and most often of those who are left behind) to justice as well, especially when mediating and administering justice involves different social codes and beliefs (as is the case in international affairs).
I would like to hear your thoughts.
* Death has no appeal is the title of one of the EU anti-death penalty campaigns