Friday, 10 June 2011

Death by lethal injection

There was once a flood-warning. The man who lived by the river heard it first on his local radio station. He said to himself, “I’m a man of faith, I shall pray to God and He will save me.”

The water rose and lapped at the front door of the man’s house. A man in a rowing boat pulled alongside and shouted to him to get in and be rowed to safety. The man said, “I’m a man of faith, I shall pray to God. I believe He will save me. Go away!”

The water continued to rise and eventually the man had to sit on his roof. A helicopter flew by, hovered over him, and the pilot shouted through a loudhailer, “I’m going to lower a rope ladder for you – we’ll have you in safety in no time!”

“Go away!” the man shouted back. “I’m a man of faith. I shall pray to God and I believe He will save me!”

Eventually he drowned, and when he presented himself at the doors of heaven he angrily demanded that St Peter should arrange an audience with the Almighty. Once before the Throne of Majesty he said, “Lord, I have always had faith in You, and I prayed to You when the flood was rising, believing You would save me, and yet You didn’t!”

God looked at him sternly and said, “I sent you a warning by radio, I sent you a boat, and a helicopter…”

The above is a paraphrase of a story told in one of the early episodes of the popular American TV show The West Wing. It is told to the fictional President of the USA by the man who was his parish priest when he was young. It is told to him as time runs out to order a stay of execution on a man whose death sentence the Supreme Court has upheld. The priest points out to him that God had sent him a Priest, a Rabbi, and a deaf Quaker. As the President ruefully considers these words and realizes their wisdom, his Press Secretary hands him a note advising him of the condemned man’s death.

In the episode nothing much is known about the condemned man. I do not believe we see his face or hear his voice. We are given sketchy details about the offence, to the effect that he murdered two members of a drugs cartel. The circumstances of execution by lethal injection are explained but not dwelt upon. This is all part of a dramatic device to focus us away from any sympathy towards the victims or the perpetrator and help us to focus on the actual issue of the morality of the death penalty. We hear from the three representatives of religion whose opposition is cogent, rational, and compassionate. We hear from people who frankly admit that they have not been moved either way. We hear from a young man who would have happily taken personal revenge on someone who murdered a family member, let alone supported the State’s role in execution. We hear all this without any overblown didacticism from the programme-makers, although at the end the President is left silently contemplating the inevitability of the justice system and his own failure to take moral responsibility. Maybe justice has been served but not mercy.

In 1960 the number of murders committed in the United States was 9,110. In 2009 it was 15,241. That’s an increase of 67%. In fact there was a peak of 24,700 in 1991 (171% of the 1960 figure) after which the trend has been generally downward. Setting that against population, just over 179 million in 1960 compared to just over 307 million in 2009, with 252 million in 1991, the numbers of murders per head of population appears to be comparable at either end of the period under review (if my maths is correct, and disregarding the blip in the middle).

Murder rates per hundred thousand people for 2009. The highest from a state which has the death penalty is 17.5 in Louisiana, the lowest is 0.8 in New Hampshire. In the states which do not have the death penalty the highest was Michigan with 6.3 and the lowest were Iowa and Vermont each with 1.1.

Thirty-four states currently have the death penalty, along with the U.S. Government and the U.S. Military (both of which are, I guess, treated as being in Federal rather than State jurisdiction); sixteen states plus the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty. Those that abolished the death penalty between 1960 and 2009 were Iowa (1965), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), New York (2007), North Dakota (1973), Rhode Island (1984), and Vermont (1964), along with DC in 1981.

The highest level of public support for the death penalty in the USA, as indicated in polls which only mentioned the death penalty, was 80% in 1994. The lowest recorded was 42% in 1966. The proportion is usually much lower when a poll gives a choice between death and life imprisonment without parole.

I do not know whether these statistics are of any use to either side of the abolition argument, except perhaps to highlight that the human propensity for violence is present no matter what the consequences might be.

I live in a country which has no death penalty, and perhaps I could afford to take the ‘moral high ground’. I could look at the USA and say “This is not my call – it is up to the citizens of the USA to support or reject change within their own country and to take moral responsibility for whichever way it goes”. That is not a weak argument. However the trouble with moral high ground is that it is just that – high – and one can easily fall from a height. Detachment can be an arrogation of one’s duty as a member of common humanity. No one is an island, as John Donne reminds us. The world is becoming smaller and what happens in the world’s most powerful nation affects all of us outside it almost as much as it affects US citizens.

Perhaps it is time for me to sit down and sort out the various trains of thought in my head.

If a murderer harmed someone I loved, I can imagine how I would feel. Death penalty? I’m sure I would feel like doing it myself and making it as slow, painful, and terrifying as it could be! Rationally, however, I would know I was wrong. Communities and countries take such decisions out of the hands of aggrieved individuals. Omertà, despite its cultural strength in some quarters, is not a civilized practice and can only lead to endless blood-feuds. If the community’s decision does not satisfy my own feelings I have to bear that. The question is not whether the perpetrators of crime deserves to die – it is pointless to argue that they do not – but whether that gives us the right to kill them in return, whether what I might do in hot blood I should expect my peers to do in cold.

Rationally I tend towards opposing the death penalty. I feel that I would be more prepared to shoot someone dead to prevent harm to someone I held dear than I would, once the white heat of my anger had cooled, to push the button to start the process of execution. That would be the point at which I would see the murderer’s humanity and wonder about my own. I do not, however, expect my own balance of reason and emotion necessarily to be other people’s.

But this is not the end of the moral argument. There are many other trains of thought.

In 2005 the BBC quoted Lucie Russell, Director of the campaign group Smart Justice, as saying: “Prisons are a university of crime. People go in knowing how to do one crime and come out knowing how to do four others." I do not know if she realized she was herself quoting Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin: "Prisons are universities of crime, maintained by the state." They are. They are supposed to be institutions where people are simply deprived of liberty; they are in fact places where people are stripped of dignity. Even in the most civilized country, even in the rich, liberal, industrialized democracies this is the case. To commit a human being to such a place is to say, “You are worthless”. The only purpose they serve is to perpetuate crime, to give those with a tendency to cruelty licence to be cruel in a microcosm, to destroy the weak, and to do all this without the constraints of a ‘normal’ environment, without the mutual aid of a community whose influence might be to mitigate the worst of cruelty and weakness. The fact that we send to prison those people with whom we are likely to feel the least sympathy is neither here nor there. Prison is not only the University of Crime but a place which is degrading, debasing, and if not downright dehumanising then at best reduces humanity to its worst components.

But what alternative could there be?

In the Russian Civil War the anarchist leader* Nestor Makhno practiced summary execution. The Officers of captured White Army troops were killed immediately by a bullet to the head, the rankers were given the choice of joining the Black Army or going home disarmed. The Black Army had no facilities for prisoners, and I speculate that Makhno felt that instant death was cleaner, more dignified than imprisonment anyway. There is an apocryphal story of his responding to a simple statement of “But I don’t want to die” by simply not executing the man in question. When asked why, Makhno said “Because he doesn’t want to die”.

Could I support this: could I support a communal reaction to crime which says on the first occasion of a crime, no matter how petty or serious, we give you the choice of either reform and recompense as far as possible or a bullet in the head right now, and on the next occasion simply administers the bullet? Could I condone this as an alternative to the brutality of prison? Could I say to the criminal that instant death is a more dignified fate? After all, I have said that I could easily imagine myself preventing by lethal force the harming of someone I loved.

I am a poor excuse for a pacifist, but then as a rational position pacifism cannot stand up to the force majeur of other arguments, it never has been able to**.

The question of taking or not taking life has never been a simple one. The matter of abortion has always vexed me***, for example, and the polarized arguments have too. It suggests to me that people on either side have not truly examined their own positions but have started with a supposition and then constructed arguments and selected evidence to fit that supposition. I mention this only to stress the difficulty inherent in considering such matters.

Therefore I leave the question(s) open.


* I know this concept seems oxymoronic. Maybe I should return at some time to the question of the role of leadership within anarchism. Remind me.

** Acting out of faith rather than reason is another matter entirely. It is an act of prophecy and altruism against which reason dashes itself impotently to pieces.

*** The matter, for example, of when life begins. At birth? At conception? I recognise the various arguments. If forced to state a position I would say that life begins when individual consciousness begins, but I would offer the following caveats to that. Firstly I would find it impossible to identify the stage in pregnancy when that actually happens. Secondly that even though it can be argued that ‘life’ might not have begun at conception, the process of bringing about life definitely has, and that it cannot be reversed or interrupted but only stopped. Thirdly I might be entirely wrong.


Sources of information:

BBC News
Death Penalty Information Center  
The Disaster Center 

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