26 September 2011

Legal murder: the deterrent argument

The last few days I’ve been commenting on the execution of Troy Davis, a man wrongfully convicted over the murder of a police officer.  In my article for Saturday (September 24, 2011) I discussed the issue of punishment matching crime, the eye-for-an-eye argument.  Today I shall dwell on another justification for capital punishment, that of its deterrent effect.
Obviously encouraging deterrence is not the only justification for punishment in general.  Criminals are incarcerated primarily on the basis of a social contract.  If one cannot abide by the rules, one must re-locate oneself in areas where the rules do not apply.  If such a place does not exist, then the transgressor must be kept away. That’s what jails are for.  The period of incarceration is determined after considering the nature of the transgression.  It is assumed that some appropriate time in the cooler will sober up the individual sufficiently to warrant release. 
Punishment, however, is not only for wrongdoer but for the potential wrongdoer.  This is why we often see warning signs where citizens are informed about the possible consequences of particular transgressions.  In the case of the death penalty, it is assumed that a general understanding that taking a life might cost you your own would make the potential murderer think twice before burying the hatchet for all time, so to speak. 

Is that how it works, though? 
Most murders are crimes of passion, spur-of-the-moment executions.  In such cases where split-second decisions are made to murder someone, the murderer cannot have the time or the inclination to reflect on possible consequences.  Indeed, in some instances, the murderer has already justified the act, especially when murder is committed in a fit of jealousy or out of political conviction, and most importantly is ready to face the death penalty.  The existence of capital punishment, therefore, will not deter such people from committing murder.
In the case of premeditated murder, the transgressor is probably very much aware of what awaits him/her in the event of being caught, charged and found guilty.  Once they’ve decided to act, all they are concerned is about being effective in the execution of plan and in getting away.  They are undeterred. 
There is another aspect that rebels against the deterrent argument: squeamishness.  If the death penalty is a mechanism which serves to deter people from committing murder, then the most logical thing is the lay it all before the public in ways that are so repulsive and are aimed at manufacturing fear.  Put simply, if deterrence is the issue, then public executions are a must.  In the times of vast strides in communications technology, public executions can be complemented by complementary publicity in all media, print and electronic. 
Potential Murderer A, the argument implies, would be less likely to kill Victim P if Convicted Murderer X is hanged at, say, Galle Face Green and the entire proceedings shown live on television and commented on via radio with live video streaming being made available online.  There can also be a before and after, to make sure that the point is driven home.  Newspapers can publish photo essays, along with quotes from the closest family members of the executed.  There could be before, while and after photos, carried without any editing.  If it’s a hanging and the hanged urinated, that too should be captured and passed around (the picture that is).  What his/her face looked like before must be juxtaposed with his/her death face.
The ‘before’ element of the story can include periodical interviews of the convicted, can enumerate on the things that led to that terrible moment and carry quotes from the murderer too.  The people (each and every one of them a potential murderer) must be told what it was like for the prisoner, knowing the date and time of his death as well the method of execution, and what he/she felt about this.    The murderers ‘every moment’ of incarceration must be recorded:  the joys and sorrows, the anxieties and justifications, the fears, the remorse (if any) etc. 
The point is that each and every one of us is a potential murderer.  If we are to stop ourselves and if staying the blow is contingent on being fully conscious about the extremities of the consequences, then the more we know, the better.  We need to know of all the horrors that the man or woman who is to be executed must necessarily suffer from the moment the judge reads out the sentence to the point where he/she is executed.  If we are too squeamish, then we can’t use the deterrent argument when justifying capital punishmet.
There are two things I know for sure: a) the vast majority (all potential murderers, let me repeat) would rather not see an execution and b) the relevant authorities are equally averse to showing.  Thus, over and above the questions regarding capital punishment deterring would-be murderers, most nations that sanction the barbarity seem strangely averse to going the whole hog in using the act to plant deterring seeds in the minds of the general public.  
Deterrence is a nice thought, but is irrelevant to the issue at hand.  At best, it stops with the rhetoric.