Can death penalty scare criminals enough?

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IOL  ca OPED Vigilante Scene DONE INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Sweet Home Farm after a vigilante attack. People feel that perpetrators are getting away with it, that their rights are protected while innocent people suffer Picture: Cindy Waxa

Mob killings or the death penalty - it’s all about wanting a redistribution of the fear we feel, writes Glen Heneck.

Cape Town - It’s an awkward thought, but there’s a meaningful link between vigilante murders and the abolition of the death penalty. The mob killings that have been ominously increasing over the last while are directly related to the perception among law-abiding citizens that the established criminal justice system is hopelessly unequal to its protective task. Criminals are getting away with murder and people are increasingly despairing and angry. Sociologists tout redistribution of wealth as a panacea for social ills, but what township residents want is a redistribution of fear.

The problem is that, for sophisticates everywhere, the capital punishment debate has long since ended. Public executions are seen as relics of a more barbarous age, like sweatshops and male-only suffrage. The modern consensus, in the West at any rate, is that “cruel and unusual” punishments are wrong: not needed, not civilised and not effective. The killer blow, so to speak, was the evidence that the reintroduction of state sanctioned killings in some American states had little or no bearing on their levels of violent crime.

I’m an abolitionist by instinct and by dint of a half decent education. I can’t help thinking though that there’s a serious discussion to be had on the subject, with specific reference to our local circumstances. I am, you could say, against the death penalty on principle, but without being wholly convinced that a society at our stage of evolution can afford to be shot of it.

In the UK, by way of revealing benchmark, the vast majority of the population is educated, invested and cowed to such an extent that the threat of disembowelling, or hanging, drawing and quartering, is not practically needed. They have a murder or 10 each week, but it can by no means be said that the society suffers an epidemic of violent crime. This is a country that was executing pickpockets at one point – in the ages of both Shakespeare and Dickens – but they dismantled the last of their gallows about 50 years ago.

We, of course, are rather less fortunate in terms of both mass sensibilities and mass circumstances. We suffer 30 times the British homicide rate, with over 18 000 people succumbing each year. That’s close to 50 murders every single day – and yet our policy makers, in all three arms of government, seem to believe themselves morally bound to follow the First World lead. The most exacting First World lead, which excludes not only parts of America, but also countries like Japan, Russia and Singapore. And of course China, where they summarily shoot about 30 people a week.

My informal survey of the comparative history suggests that all human societies have made use of the death penalty, in their early stages at least. In some cases, applying the most imaginative and bloodcurdling methods. It is only when they reach a certain level of maturity that the practice falls to be reviewed and, in some cases, abandoned. The inference being that fearsome punishments have been universally regarded as necessary civilising devices – and that freedom from this particular form of terror is properly seen as a luxury; as a communal privilege that has to be earned, over time.

Terror, that’s what it is we’re dealing with here. That form of extreme fear that is calculated to stay the hands of those contemplating gross offences against the common good.

One advantage of starting from this premise is that it helps one to re-frame the basic conundrum, only in a more constructive way. What we (good citizens) really need to be asking is not “does the death penalty work”? but rather “what is the least barbarous practice that will actually serve to achieve the desired outcome?” If we conclude that death by hanging or electrocution does not have a meaningful deterrent effect, the proper response is not, necessarily, abolition.

Uncomfortable as this may make us feel, what we are then bound to consider, instead, is the introduction of more extreme variations on the theme.

But, faux-progressives will protest, if we go this route, we will do much harm to the collective sensibility: “brutalising the communal consciousness” as the text books have it.

Respectfully though, while I am revolted by the idea of a man being starved to death, for example, at the behest of the state, the truth is that this seems a small price to pay if the desired objective is thereby achieved.

We all need to face up to it: in the time it’s taken you to read this note, chances are that at least one entirely innocent person will have been brutally (perhaps fatally) assaulted. And that’s the real nub of the matter.

Our current punishment policy immunises egregious offenders against the ultimate available sanction. In so doing however, it fails signally in what should be its primary purpose. It prioritises the perpetrator’s rights and liberal sensibilities at the expense of the rights of putative victims. The first job of a government is to protect its innocent citizenry against the depradations of ill-intentioned others – and by failing to deploy a necessary (and available and affordable) expedient to that end it is, surely, guilty of profound neglect. Or even complicity.

The heading here is the social contract and how we deal with those who infringe it in unspeakable ways (read cold-blooded murder and aggravated rape). I’m arguing that the powers-that-be need to get over their distaste, and Oxbridge awe, and reassess the situation; thoroughly, dispassionately, indigenously.

* Glen Heneck is a lawyer living in Cape Town.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus



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