Sunday, September 13, 2015

The death penalty: a difficult issue

For an intellectual, Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound, has an unusual and unhypocritical take on the death penalty. In his TOI column today (September 13, 2015), he says: ‘The UN resolution says that it (the death penalty) undermines human dignity. But I am not convinced. I would argue that retaining the death penalty, in fact, enhances human dignity.’

The proponents of the death penalty argue that it acts as a deterrent.  In other words, it deters crime by discouraging would-be offenders.   Does it really?  But the abolition of capital punishment seems to act as a deterrent.  In Canada, for instance, there has been a sharp fall in the rate of homicide since the death penalty was abolished.  Execution, as the Italian political theorist, Cesare Beccaria, rightly pointed out, is after all transient and so cannot be as powerful as long-term imprisonment.

But there is a difficulty with this line of reasoning.  Isn't life imprisonment with assured food, clothing and shelter more a reward than a punishment?  Isn't it actually a punishment for the taxpayers?  In a Tolstoy story ('Too Dear'), a criminal who gets life for a murder turns out to be drain on the exchequer.  After some time, the government tells him to go away, but he wouldn't. To get rid of him, the government finally offers him a pension of 600 francs, which was much cheaper!

Though the Tolstoy story exaggerates the situation, the fact remains that execution is much cheaper than life imprisonment. Two things, however, justify life imprisonment.  One, it is a more powerful deterrent.  Two, we have come a long way since we burnt criminals at the stake as a form of capital punishment; we consider it barbaric now.  By parity of reasoning, we must consider the death penalty itself barbaric.

Barbaric it may be, but retributive certainly – this is the argument of a large number of people.  What they mean is that, as a fundamental principle, the punishment should be equal to the offence.  But this is only a refined form of the old fiat, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  Laws about punishment, as James Fieser pointed out, should be based not on extreme feelings but tempered ones.

Much as the case for doing away with capital punishment is strong, it is not likely to be abolished in the foreseeable future in our country.  ‘To everything there is a season and a time,’ as the Bible so perceptively points out.  The time hasn't come yet: the belief in retributive punishment is still so deeply entrenched in this land of Mahatma Gandhi who, we must remember, was "executed" for advocating moderation.

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