“But secondly you say ‘society must exact vengeance, and society must punish’. Wrong on both counts. Vengeance comes from the individual and punishment from God.”
― Victor Hugo, ‘The Last Day of a Condemned Man’
COMMENT | I have never had a problem with the idea of killing but I am one of those people who is against the death penalty. When Pakatan Harapan promised to abolish the death penalty, I was all for it. I still am. With the cabinet decision of abolishing the death penalty for 32 offences including murder, the Harapan government is on its way of removing the death penalty from our judicial system.
The recent case of a toddler who died because of a sexual assault, however, has brought forth the revenge fantasies of those who are for the death penalty and, of course, political operatives who are ever ready to pander to angry mobs. The horrific death of an infant offers the opportunity for some to put forward the idea that the death penalty be retained for certain cases. This is morally and intellectually reprehensible but predictable.
Does everyone who kills an infant deserve death? Would it matter if that person were mentally ill or in drug-induced fugue? What of people who intentionally kill babies?
I once had an interesting conversation with a police officer. She was part of a team attempting to find a young teen who had thrown her new-born baby into a storm drain. The baby’s body was smashed to a bloody pulp when it hit the pavement. I do not know why but what I kept imagining was the baby gurgling with laughter or wailing in frustration as the infant dropped to the pavement.
Does this girl deserve the death penalty, I asked this middle-aged Muslim police officer. “Unlike many in my religion who believe otherwise, I know only God can punish with death, Thaya” and added, “but I hope this young girl feels so guilty that she kills herself before we find her.”
I thought that was an honest reply, especially in the context of divine punishment as the only form of “justice” in the Victor Hugo quote that opens this piece. One sin leads to another and some sort of divine justice is achieved. Or so the godly think. Do you have a problem with killing a child because he or she killed an infant?
Any discussion of the death penalty devolves into an emotional argument which I find hypocritical. Self-righteousness is always easy. Some people when arguing about the death penalty attempt rhetorical challenges like, “imagine if your family member was raped or killed, would you not want the death penalty then?” or some variant of this line of argumentation. This is silly for two reasons.
The first is what about those people who have lost loved one through violence but who are against the death penalty? Is it so hard to believe that people could possibly not want the state to execute people on their behalf? Is it so hard to believe that for some the bereavement process does not include or end with the death of the perpetrator?
? is not only a failure of imagination but also ignorance of the nuance of death penalty debates. Don't the voices of compassion carry as much weight as those of retribution?
Yes, you will never really know how you will react until it happens to you. You may want to kill the person who did this your loved one or you may see no reason or comfort in the vengeance by proxy of the state. And this is where the first component of Hugo’s quote about individual vengeance comes into play...