Fairly recently I was in a conversation that circled the question of the death penalty. It’s a topic that I’ve spoken about before, both within and outside of this group of friends, and that I will no doubt speak about again at some point. We’re each of us quite vehement and the discussion quickly grew heated, with four on one side and one on the other. The four were for the death penalty. One was not. I was not.
I have several reasons for why I’m against the death penalty, considered carefully over a period of time. Firstly, I fear what the death penalty entails: its absolute finality. There is no room for reconsideration, no space for possible juridical or evidentiary errors. Death is absolute and the absolute is frightening. Secondly, in the simplest possible terms, the death penalty is contradictory to its own terms. The state’s choice to execute someone is to transgress its own laws against the death of its citizens. As a close friend once told me, the state cannot outlaw one person’s choice to kill another if the same choice can then be applied by the state with no repercussions. If the death penalty is something that is applied with regard to the need for the preservation and regard of life, as is often the descriptive rhetoric used to justify its need, then the execution of a person is against the basic principle that it uses to justify itself. Every time the state enforces the death penalty, it merely states to its citizens that it is above the laws that it established and enforces; the death penalty positions the state as supreme (Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’). There’s no way around this contradictory element. This isn’t the presumed simplicity of an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ scenario, this is about state sanctioned violence as well – there’s no getting around that complication unless you choose to deliberately blind yourself to it.
Thirdly, the decision to apply the death penalty is one that I can’t seem to come to terms with. The violent death of an individual is more likely to engender the death penalty than white collar crime that could result in hundreds, if not thousands of deaths, albeit without what legality might term a direct link.The death penalty establishes a means by which to ascertain both, which life is worth preservation and which isn’t as well as which lives are worth seeking this level of redress and which aren’t: it establishes a hierarchy of lives and punitive measures. If the extent of the damage to society is the measure of the eventual sentence, then this no longer falls within a system of rationality; I cannot reconcile myself to a system that measures the weight of what would deserve death and what skirts its boundaries and what would lie within acceptable casualties. And since I cannot understand its logic, I choose not to endorse it.
Fourthly, the application of the death penalty finalises the issue. By this I mean that someone is executed for a crime and the event is seen as resolved: an attempt to inquire into the social, political, economic, physical, psychological or ideological reasoning is ended. The entire onus of the events that occur are thus placed on the individual/s in question. This isn’t simply about the question of mitigation (although that’s something I feel is incredibly pertinent), nor is it about the fact that society might have and might continue to produce an individual that transgresses its norms, but is also about the fact that the system of incarceration is predicated upon the assumption of deterrent, redress and redemption: to presume that an individual is incapable of redemption is to proffer the death penalty. It’s to deny the right to try. I’m not willing to stand behind that assumption.
For quite some time my personal recommendation has been to suggest incarceration and compulsory therapy as the most viable solution. It’s not a perfect system and I have no doubt that there would be issues on both sides – the perhaps prohibitive cost, therapists and patients unwilling to work with each other, patients who cannot respond to therapy, coming to a consensus on the type of therapy that would be implemented, the safety and inevitable burnout of therapists who are willing to undertake this task, patients who manage to work their way through the system without therapy having any effect – that make this a harder solution to consider. However, two things sustain me in this regard: the first is that people who genuinely need help might have the chance to get it; and secondly, should a therapist feel that a patient is unable to respond and might be a danger to others, they could be assessed and committed until further options become available.
While I was prepared for this to be an unpopular opinion, I wasn’t prepared for the reason my point of view was declared invalid. It wasn’t engagement with my argument, nor was it any alternate theorising that would justify the death penalty outside of the four major points I’d just offered. It was blanket dismissal: “You’re saying these things because you’ve never had to deal with anyone who was hurt, and I hope you or yours never have to. But you’d feel differently if it was you.”
I had no response to this sweeping statement at the time. I was angered and disappointed, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that so upset me. It wasn’t the fact that my opinion was disregarded; I’d known that was going to be the case going into the argument itself. Nor was it the fact that they clearly viewed my stance as one of naivety. It wasn’t until much later that I finally understood what I had found so jarring at the time: the presumption that the only way in which to establish my opinion would have been to have laid claim to an experience of pain, whether myself directly, or indirectly through someone I know. Conversely, should I have acceded to what I felt was the more extreme notion of the death penalty, the authenticity of my experience would have been of no concern. Huh.
I find this troubling. Of the five of us there that night, none of us have been involved in anything that would necessitate the death penalty, either for or on behalf of ourselves. However, one of us works with victims of sex crimes, and it was she who mentioned my lack of an authentic experience. Her assumption was that if I’d seen the results of certain crimes, I too would come to see things her way and support calls for the death penalty. Perhaps on the surface this seems fair enough: her proximity to those who suffer the results of these crimes invests her with the authority to speak on their behalf with a reasonable knowledge of their own wishes on the subject. And she no doubt suffers in her work; it is not an easy task that she has undertaken. Yet, what her stance also suggests is that none of the rest of us had the same call to authenticity that would allow us to disagree. Her authority established her as a source of knowledge and those that agreed with her could invest in this, and those that disagreed were discredited by it. And that shook me.
It shook me because it implied that there was no need to rebut each of my carefully considered points; my lack of authenticity was proof enough against me. It shook me because it implied that my opinion now, calm, collected and considered over the period of a number of years was somehow less valid than an opinion I might have in a future moment of grief or rage or fear wherein something horrible may have happened to me or those I love. It shook me because it had an undertone of kill or be killed, kill or be afraid, kill or they will come for you; an authenticity that grounded itself on such rage-ridden fear that killing someone could be its only respite.
If a decision to endorse the death penalty locates itself in this incredible fear, then this becomes another reason why I cannot endorse it. I do not think I would want to make my decisions inhabiting a space of terror, though my ability to even attempt this already discloses an incredible privilege.