The act of killing someone by the force of law and by the due process of law is a very fuzzy and completely grey concept. Of course, there are two ends of this spectrum, which believes in absolutism.
– It is right to kill by law
– It is not right to kill, even by law
To me and I am sure, to many, the dilemma lies in between. The pendulum swings from one end to the other. The animal spirit in us wants revenge; an eye for an eye and at times, the sober mind becomes a dove, hating the act of taking a life. This ambivalence is the internal debate one has in the mind on a numbing subject, which, in private or public discussions triggers emotions in both ways. This is the internal debate one has with his conscience. I am no different.
This question is not new to this century or decade. This must have been an old debate and certainly people have been on either side of the debate for long. There is no certain dogmatic view on killing – even by rule of law.
Fortunately, we have been bestowed with a bountiful literature, scripture and lots of history, which has thrown some breadcrumbs for us in each direction, allowing our feeble mind to decide what we want as a society.
Case against death penalty:
Though words ‘death penalty’ conveys the meaning it is supposed to, (death – a punishment for breaking the law of the land), it is in its most crude sense, the barbaric act of taking a life from one person. To a God believing person like me, the moral and ethical question – what right do we have to take a life? – always looms large in the mind. There is no satisfactory answer to this question. At any point of time, killing a person cannot be justified. But here we speak only of penalty, i.e., the punishment imposed on a person after due process of law is followed. A quote I read somewhere comes to mind.
“Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing is wrong?”
Should we take the life given by divinity just because we framed some rules and death penalty is right under the purview of those roles? After all, these rules and laws were (and are) not enacted by infallible men and women. They are prone to errors like you and me. Is ‘due process followed’ a right argument when the question in itself is on the law, let alone the process?
Saint – poet Thiruvalluvar sums in a better form.
அறவினை யாதெனின் கொல்லாமை கோறல்
பிறவினை எல்லாந் தரும்.
The translation offered by G.U. Pope goes on like this – “Never to destroy life is the sum of all virtuous conduct. The destruction of life leads to every evil.”
Is there a difference here between killing and the process driven deliverance of justice? To my mind, no. The act of taking a life can be sugarcoated in any form or fashion but it undeniably means only one thing – that it is taking a life away from one person.
There are people who argue that death penalty is wrong because it just shows revenge and retribution. This is a shallow argument and doesn’t go deeply into the moral and spiritual question one may or will have. Who gave us the right? We ourselves.
The concept of punishment is supposed for the purpose of reformation of one. The punishment is kind of a penance and after that, the society expects that the punished person becomes reformed and is able to mingle in the society as a normal human. Given this, the death penalty (by law) doesn’t offer this chance to a person. Should one not repent an act and become transformed? Should one not be reformed and be like a common law abiding citizen? Considering all these, should we not abandon the death penalty?
Case for death penalty:
Historically, the balance of good and evil is the domain of the society. As we evolved, it was handed over to the King to deliver justice and then to the written constitution and hence the judges (or juries) in most countries (except absolute monarchies).
You will be surprised to know that there is a branch in philosophy, which deals with such strata called as Utilitarian Philosophy. By killing someone we are exacting a utility – putting the convict away from the society and not giving a chance to him again to commit a similar crime.
The other common argument is of retribution and revenge. Retribution is required to somewhat compensate for the loss. Our history is abound with examples, most notably the example of Manuneethi Chozhan. This is a great example of retributive punishment, which lives with us as a legend and act as a moral compass when justice is delivered.
Another argument is that a convict has forgone his right to life (excellently put in American Declaration of Independence – that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness). But right to life is lost when a person is found guilty of taking another life.
What better source to look for answers to such a dilemma than Bhagwad Gita? There are justifications provided by Krishna to Arjuna on why he has to fight a battle and kill his own blood! These are lengthy, cryptic and scholarly. Grazing the surface and citing a verse for the sake of it will not do justice to its sanctity, purity or sacredness. But present there is for an action such as taking a life. In the name of duty or a largely encompassing ‘dharma’ we are taught a lesson of our duties.
Also, what is the evidence that the criminals are reformed when a sentence is served? Do we have any analytical or scientific proof or study to understand the reformation of criminals and the sentences served? In absence of any such proof, it is safe to presume that retributive punishment is correct when it comes to death penalty.
The angle of deterrence and necessity is ever complex and highly subjective. The saint poet who was against killing throws the curve ball now.
கொலையிற் கொடியாரை வேந்தொறுத்தல் பைங்கூழ்
களைகட் டதனொடு நேர்.
Translated – “for a king to punish criminals with death is like pulling up the weeds in the green corn”
Where do I draw a line?
The acts of war and terrorism have to be dealt with a force best understood by such people. Though death will not act as a deterrent to them, it conveys our intentions. It conveys our unambiguous will and determination in dealing with such inhumane and barbaric lot among us.