Thursday, December 02, 2004

Capital Punishment : For or Against ?

Yesterday my father, who is a school teacher, was advising one of his students about a debate competition. The topic for the debate was Capital Punishment and my father advised his student to argue in favor of Capital Punishment. At that time, I expressed my objection to capital punishment being offered by flawed judicial systems that are the norm in human society. Since I had no time to summarize my arguments yesterday I am writing these into my blog for future storage and possible comments from those who might stumble upon my humble blog-dwelling.

I must admit at this time that I was reading Spinoza then and read some of Spinoza's views on ethics and politics. I don't think I am affected by that, but let's try anyway.

First of all, let's analyze the word Punishment in Capital Punishment. What is Punishment ? Why does anybody get punished ? In India, we call a place where we put criminals away a prison. But in the US - it is officially referred to as a correctional facility. That basically conveys my thought on Punishment and why anybody is punished for a crime. The idea is to correct the criminal behavior. In other words, to kill or to correct the criminal tendencies in a person is why a person gets punished.

The first argument against Capital punishment is this - when we punish anybody, it is actually to correct the errant behavior in that person. When we give capital punishment to anybody - we would be killing a person along with the criminal tendencies - whereas the elimination of the latter would have been sufficient. We are essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Of course, there are crimes of passion committed that sound really horrific. For example, we had Dhananjoy Chatterjee who was recently hanged for sexually assaulting and murdering a 14-year old girl. But he was kept in jail for 14 years after this deed and then hanged. A few people tried to get him a presidential pardon - but most of the people bayed for his blood. A man is basically an animal, albeit a refined one. So, in moments of crisis like these, the naked nature of man is left for all to see. It is jungle law that people want in this case. They know that the victim of the crime can't be brought back - but still they have no satisfaction. People aim to get satisfaction at least for a few moments by killing the perpetrator of the horrible crime. I agree, it requires a super-human and a sage to be content with the elimination of the criminal tendency rather than the criminal himself.

I have a thought experiment on this. Suppose we had a criminal-tendency detection meter that would do its job flawlessly. Suppose that we keep a known criminal in prison for some time and positively try to remove his criminal tendency by physical, moral and spiritual methods. Suppose again that, after a while, we measure the criminal tendencies with our magic meter and find that the tendency is much below what is needed to function as a regular member of society. Will we now release this person from prison ? I am inclined to believe that people will not assent to this. What is your thought on such an experiment ?

Enough digressing. Our primal animal instincts will definitely egg us towards killing a person for the crime he has committed. But a human being is more than just an animal and this is the distinction that we have for ourselves. We pride ourselves in our ability to cogitate. We swear by our logic. We should allow the human in us to triumph over the bestial spirit. I am sounding like an ahimsAvAdi pacifist and I wish to state that I am not. But logically what do we get by killing a person ? We can't turn the clock back on the unfortunate events that have transpired at the instance of the criminal!

But how much human behavior is actually logical ? This is the question we need to ponder about.

Let us forget this theoretical standpoint for a while and come back to the mundane.

Now, assume that it is all right for us to kill a person for committing a sufficiently grave crime. Then the onus is on the judicial system and the police system to conclusively prove that a person is a criminal. But the problem is that criminal investigations are not any simpler even with rapid advancements in forensic science. There is always scope for human error.

Consider the fact that there was no DNA fingerprinting used in, say, the last 10 years. But what about the people who were executed before this technology came to be used ? As we speak, we are finding out that several alleged criminals, who were executed, were in fact innocent. We cannot bring back their lives now. Similarly there will be technologies invented in the future which will continue to exonerate several so-called criminals.

All of us feel that it is better to allow ten criminals to go scot-free than kill an innocent. Don't you think that capital punishment is in error ?

Don't get me wrong. I am not like Gandhi who asks for unconditional ahimsa. Killing for self-defence is all right. Killing in wars is also justified, though a war itself has to be avoided if possible. I don't want to elaborate on these right now.

There is another aspect also. If we cannot create a life, how can we aim to destroy one ? And that too, within societal norms ?

I have rambled a bit here. My thoughts were a lot coherent yesterday. I will see if I can edit these later. But I will post this blog for now.

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