Thursday, 12 November 2015

Capital punishment


A tricky issue, even after you realise I am not talking about being forced to live in Auckland rather than beautiful Wellington. No, what I am talking about is the death penalty. Widely decried by advocates of human rights, and others who believe the justice is simply too flawed to allow such extreme measures to operate without error, my own thoughts on this issue are relatively unequivocal. I consider myself to be of a modern sensibility in many things, and liberal in many ways, but when it comes to the death penalty, I am decidedly pro. Let me tell you why, while also thinking about some of the arguments around the issue.

First is the idea the capital punishment should never be used, from a moral standpoint. This seems to me to be based on either one of two premises. First, that killing is morally wrong and that we, as reasonable, evolved beings, should eschew it. The second is the idea that there is no action which anyone can commit which deserves death. To take the second of these first, I believe that this is simply untrue. There are many actions which, if committed, warrant the forfeiture of a person’s life. Each crime will need to be judged by its merits, but acts like those committed by Josef Fritzl, Anders Breivik, or David Berkowitz, to name but a tiny few, would fall into this category. I am sure you can think of your own examples.

The first issue, that killing is morally wrong, seems fair enough on the face of it, but fails when put to the test. Let me propose a scenario wherein a police officer is facing off against a terrorist who had planted a bomb under a school bus full of children. The terrorist has his thumb over the switch, and the cop must decide whether to shoot, knowing that the only shot he has is a head shot. Does he pull the trigger?

Of course, even if your answer to the above hypothetical is yes, you might still argue that shooting a man in the heat of a battle is much different to holding a man for years and then executing him in cold blood. I would not disagree on this point, but rather point out that the argument shows that killing is not always wrong, from a moral standpoint.

Next, suppose we have a situation where the policeman missed his shot, the children got cooked, and the terrorist got arrested. Does this man deserve to live? More to the point, is it worth society’s time and expense keeping him alive? That money could be better spent elsewhere. Rehabilitation, you say? Let me tell you this, rehabilitation is not always possible and, with regards to the protection of those in society, should not always be attempted. Now, I am not fit to judge individual cases, but it seems to me that it would be downright irresponsible, in terms of the risk to future buses full of children, to try and ‘rehabilitate such a man. Nor has he earned such an opportunity by his behaviour.

So, again the question: why keep such a man alive? He is now nothing more than a drain on the resources of society. I don’t mean to suggest that human life be measured solely in terms of productivity, but the ninety-year-old who has been a peaceful member of society all her life has earned the right to care until the days she dies. Our fictional terrorist has forfeited such rights.

Now, there is another issue: not all cases are as black and white as the one I have described. What about human error, or corruption? Certainly mistakes happen, or are made to happen. Shouldn’t we hold back on using capital punishment just in case?

This argument is a good one, and the relative strength of it will depend upon the country to which it is being applied, there being different levels of trust in the justice system and its officials, in various places in the world. That said, I don’t believe this is a reason not to implement the death penalty. One reason for this might be that fifty years spent on death row could be considered a worse fate than a quick death, but this is of course a subjective view. Another point though, is simply that the penalty should be applied is some cases. Some people deserve to die; the world is better without them in it. As long as the correct checks and balances are in place, I believe that capital punishment is not only an option, it is the only option in some cases. Granted, we must be very careful about how and when the penalty is used, but this should not stop the pursuit of justice, merely direct it.

Revenge is not justice, I also hear shouted at me. This is true. However, sentencing, when applied by a trained and appointed judge, is not revenge. It is merely the system at work. A careful, unemotional, and reasoned examination of the facts of any crime may lead others to the same conclusion.

Perhaps you’d think differently if it were you wrongly accused, you say to me. Perhaps. But if I were able to rearrange the justice system from my own selfish perspective, it would not necessarily be that pleasant for anyone who wasn’t me. These issues must be decided without personal prejudice, as far as possible.

And that’s all I have to say about that. I think there may be other problems I have not anticipated. Feel free to let me know. After all, it’s not like I’m going to kill you.

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