Death has no appeal*

tamaraplakalo's picture

Capital punishment is a difficult question that presents us with a great ethical dilemma - is the victim's right to justice greater than the perpetrator's right to life? And can the question be asked in such a way at all? 

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.

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              


I think you're wrong

When the death penalty was abolished in Britain in the late 1960s the public was promised that murderers would serve 'life sentences'. There is indeed a mandatory life sentence for murder, but a 'life' sentence can now mean as little as a dozen years in jail. All opinion polls show that the clear majority of the British population would welcome a return of the death penalty for certain crimes and yet the will of the people is ignored on this matter. This disconnect between the wishes of the people and the dictates of the EU does not bode well for its future and it's interesting how quickly a belief in democracy can be abandoned when the majority view differs from ones own.

The old testament nostrum of 'an eye for an eye' was not a wild eyed lust for revenge but an argument for proportionality in punishment. It meant you shouldn't be hung for stealing a sheep but you should be hung for killing a man unlawfully. If murderers and terrorists don't want to be hung then perhaps they should think twice about committing cold blooded murder? Bank robbers used to search each other for firearms before committing crimes lest a gun go off, a man die and the threat of capital punishment face the whole gang, now gun crime in Britain is a commonplace. Presumably you'd reject a utiliatarian argument that the execution of a murder today might deter a future murderer tomorrow, and therefore save the life of an innocent, but it's a strange philosophical argument to make.

Why do you put such a high stock in the repentence of the criminal? If I broke into your house, stole everything you had, brutalised you and set fire to your cat would you spare me from punishment if I said, once caught, that I was really, really sorry? Would you call the police or 'let me roast in my own guilt'? What if I murdered your child? Would the chance of my 'repentence' satisfy you that justice had been done as I served out my ten years in jail watching TV, playing badminton and completing my sociology degree?

Justice can be served by the death penalty, you are begging the question to claim that it cannot. Can you seriously argue about whose rights come first, those of the murdered or the murder? The killer waives the human rights of his victim by murdering him. If 'roasting in guilt' is the worst possible sentence, how come murders do everything they can to avoid detection and deny their guilt throughout a trial? Surely they would welcome such succour for their mental anguish if that anguish were real or in itself the ultimate punishment?

Your concern for the human rights of Islamist terrorists who murdered over two hundred ordinary people, 88 of them Australians, is no doubt touching but not one shared by the majority of the Australian population. When an Australian drug smuggler was recently exectuted in Singapore polls showed that half the Australian people supported the measure although the media was universally opposed to the sentence being carried out As would be suicide bombers are so keen to meet their reward of 72 virgins in the afterlife, it seems positively churlish to deny their desire for death on moral grounds.

The injustice of Iran's executions lies not in the fact of the death penalty but the legal system under which it's carried out and the laws which Iranian's mullahs have enacted. Executing someone for homosexuality or apostacy is entirely different to executing, for example, a mass murdering psychopath like Saddam Hussain. He had denied millions of people, through his persecution of the Kurds, Shiites and Marsh Arabs and his wars against Iran and Kuwait, of their 'human right to live' and yet, predictably his execution after a free and fair trial under a democratically elected government caused far more anguish in certain quarters than had ever been raised for his innumerable victims.

We do not 'relatvise' the crime of murder by enacting the death penalty for it. Quite the contrary, it establishes a moral absolute that the ultimate crime bears the ultimate punishment. It does not perpetrate a vicious circle of escalation, it draws a clear line in the sand setting out the moral expectations of civil society in the starkest terms. I believe, for instance, that justice would have been served by executing Mile Mrksic but that is for the Croation people, who now live in a free democratic state thanks to their courage in fighting a war of independence from a Serb dominated communist dicatorship, to decide.

It is interesting that your literary example comes from Russia. Although Stalin later murdered perhaps 20 million Russians in the Gulag I can't recall a single communist recieving the death penalty for his actions in those appalling crimes. Was this just? Or do you think allowing those who murdered so many to die happily in their beds at an advanced age was the 'true' punishment? Lastly I struggled to find mention of China anywhere in your piece. The Chinese Communist Party executes far more criminals a year than any other country and for many crimes other than murder. Is it too much to hope that your next piece will excoriate that regime for its actions?

Imputing intent doesn't help the argument


Crime and Pusnishment is one of the greatest pieces ever written in the exploration of the human capacity for evil. It was written by a man desperate at the time (Dostoyevsky), whose own dilemmas about the human capacity for goodness was greatly shaken. It is, above all else, a philosphical take on the question of good and evil.

The choice of the reference has nothing to do with the fact that the book came from a Russian, nor that it came from Russia, just like it has nothing to do with communism (I don't need to remind you that Dostoyevsky wasn't one, you already know that), or with the belief that a "terrorist has a right to justice".

I have used it as an example of a process (reading a book, stressing that Raskolnikov was a fictional character), of gaining a greater understanding of someone who committs the greatest crime, where the process (reading fiction) had allowed me to develop an understanding of what goes on in Raskolnikov's mind. On a philosphical level.

In this blog, I have asked questions and presented my own dilemmas about capital punishment. I have a great dilemma about the death penalty (you may have noticed that I didn't say I unconditionally oppose the death penalty, but that I don't like the idea of it) precisely because the victims have rights too, and precisely because I believe that we don't talk about that aspect of the issue enough, and that we don't do enough about satisfying their right to justice.

I have also stated that without believing that it is possible to break the cycle of evil, without the possibility of believing that evil is corrigible, I would find it hard to live and hope and believe. My belief is premised on the assumption that the act of murder is an irrational one, and giving a chance for repentance, reformation and rehabilitation a rational response of the society that believes in its own humanity.

However absurd that may sound, the death penalty seems to be an easier way of dealing with the perpetrator, and, however absurd it might sound, possibly an easy way out for the perpetrator himself. The perpetrator is not required to work on repaying his moral debt to the victim or to the society -- for the rest of his life. And his moral debt to the society is repentance and reformation -- again, for the rest of his life. How the society manages this process is a different issue.

An economic rationalist might argue that it is economically irrational and inefficient to keep the convicted murderer alive at the expense of the society. However, I am not an economic rationalist, and my argument is not an economic one -- it is a purely ethical one. That is the answer to your question why I place so much emphasis on repentance and reformation. And then, there is the problem of miscarriages of justice, which we haven't even touched upon.

It is very presumptuous of you to state that I am defending terrorists or that I would think differently if somebody had killed my child. Not to mention that it is very presumptuous to further connect my statements, choice of examples and questions with your view that I am somehow defending Stalin for killing millions of people. It is a bit of a leap, to be mild.

This blog was, in fact, inspired by handing out of the sentences to the Vukovar three, where, in my opinion, the rights of the victims have been abused twice -- once in the act of their torture and killing, and again in handing out surprisingly light sentences to those convicted of the crimes.

I have further used the example of Iran, where the death penalty is used to punish crimes other than killing, where the society seems to support such a disproporionate punishment, to highlight different international approaches to the question of capital punishment.

The three examples used are topical (ie all were reported on in the last two weeks), hence their choice.

Aside from stating my personal beliefs, I have, however, deliberately stayed away from using broad ideological statements to argue that either is right or wrong.

Finally, democracy is about the right to ask questions, seek answers, find better ways of delivering better outcomes for more people. It is not about a priori establishing or imputing moral and political (un)suitability of those participating in the debate as the means of disqualifying their opinion --which is a Stalinist concept. Then again, I shouldn't be reminding you what democracy is about, should I?

It's not about repentance reformation

A society's choice to emply the death penalty or not has little to do with the chance of a criminal reforming themselves and contibuting to society.

Does putting a man (or woman) to death bring back their victim? Does it relieve the pain of the victim's family?

By punishing death with death we merely lower our society to the level of the criminal. Moreover, if we are wrong just once then this is too high a price to pay. If you diagree then what price do you put on an innocent human life?

That said, if some one killed harmed one of my loved ones I would probably want to see them die and, no doubt, would happily (perhaps not the best word) pull them apart limb by limb myself. That is why such decisions should be made by an independent executive and judiciary respectively and not be left to the family of the victim.

- EB