WITH violence once again the rage in our nation, social media has been in uproar every time a new incident gets reported. Time and time again, the same refrain is repeated, “bring back the death penalty”, or “let him hang”, or “if I get my hands on him”.
If you browse the comment section of every gruesome incident reported on by the Informanté, you know this song, sung by supposedly moral and upstanding citizens of our nation.
These cries are often done in the name of ‘justice’, yet they are in reality calling for vengeance. While the two terms may seem to overlap a bit, they do come from two entirely different places. Revenge is emotional, which is why the call of it seems so strong in the aftermath of a crime, but justice is primarily rational. Revenge is personal, while justice is impartial. Revenge is vindictive, while justice is vindication.
Revenge fuels revenge, the classic cycle of violence as perpetrated by the mob; justice on the other hand, seeks to bring closure. Vengeance, ultimately, is about retaliation, expressing rage, hatred and spite, while justice concerns itself with restoring balance – restorative justice. Justice focuses on equity in punishment, in restoring the social balance that was upset by the crime. Revenge escalates, while justice seeks to redress an imbalance.
It is clear why most humanists oppose the death penalty – if everyone only has one life to live, the loss of a single life, no matter how irredeemable, is seen as abhorrent, and lessens all of us with its loss. Yet we do not live in a country of humanists, for the majority identify as Christian.
To those who support it, the words of Exodus 21:234 give them the right to vengeance, for it claims, “a life for a life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
” They are too eager to forget the Sermon of the Mount, where the progenitor of their religion, a certain Jesus, said in Matthew 5:38, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
Once the fervour of vengeance and religious certainty has subsided, only then do the proponents of the death penalty attempt more conventional arguments. Only now is it argued that the imposition of the death penalty will serve as a deterrent to future crimes of the same kind. Yet the facts do not support this.
Firstly, a deterrent only works if it is consistently and promptly employed. With a criminal justice system that is run by people, we cannot claim that no errors will be made, and thus no court would allow for a quick execution after a crime until it has been properly examined. As such, executions are usually done quite a while after the commission of a crime, and has used a lot of court time and cost that could have been used to resolve other crimes.
Secondly, a lot of these crimes that people call the death penalty for are not planned, but committed in the heat of the moment, under emotional stress, or under the influence of alcohol – when people are already unable to appreciate the consequences of their actions.
When a crime is planned, part of that planning involves not getting caught, so the perpetrator has already considered the risk of being executed before committing the crime. Thirdly, if severe punishment can deter crime, permanent imprisonment is quite severe enough that it would deter any rational person from committing that crime.
The data in jurisdictions that have the death penalty have been unable to show that it has deterred such crimes to any reasonable degree. It is simply not a solution to the problems we face. Yet there are many more reasons not to employ the death penalty.
For one thing, it denies citizens the due process of law, as the death penalty is the ultimate penalty that cannot be revoked. It does not allow the accused the opportunity to benefit from new forensic techniques or collection of evidence which would allow for the reversal of a conviction. And it is quite barbaric. We don’t punish those convicted of assault by assaulting them, so why should we kill killers? If it is to be used as a deterrent, is it morally justifiable to use one citizen’s life to deter other crimes they did not themselves commit?
Due to these reasons some people seem to think that opposing the death penalty implies a lack of sympathy for the victims, but the opposite is true. Rarely do the families of murder victims feel that another murder would make them feel better. Murder demonstrates a lack of respect for human life. Life is precious, and death is irrevocable, which makes murder abhorrent, and which should make state-authorized killing even more abominable.
It advocates that the brutality of violence as the solution to society’s difficult problems, rather than reason. This is a terrible example to set for citizens, or children! The benefits of capital punishment are quite vague, but the destruction of community decency it causes by glorifying vengeance is not. Luckily, we live in a country that recognises this. Article 6 of the Namibian constitution, as entrenched and protected against repeal by article 131, reads: “The right to life shall be respected and protected. No law may prescribe death as a competent sentence. No Court or Tribunal shall have the power to impose a sentence of death upon any person. No executions shall take place in Namibia.”
For as Gandalf said to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
Desmond P van Heerden, HonsBComm (Stell) is the Chief Analytics Officer of Trustco Group Holdings Ltd. Previous articles available online at http://toi.hopto.org/. He can be contacted at DesmondV@tgh.na