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December 14, 2007

US Death Penalty: The Garden State Shows The Way

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,2227594,00.html

After approval from its state senate and legislature, New Jersey will now become the first state in more than forty years to abolish the death penalty.

In my column below, i highlighted the Supreme Court’s review of lethal injection as an encouraging sign in the campaign against capital punishment. At the least, it would mean no more executions in the US until the review’s conclusion next summer. However, the danger that the review would lead to public focus on the application of the penalty rather than the principle was also clear. The risk remained that the court could satisfy growing public scepticism by demanding a change in the ingredients used in lethal injection. While we should push for this reform, (the chemical mix is now not even used on animals), we must constantly try to shift the debate onto the issue of principle.

New Jersey’s decision is crucial in this regard. Firstly, while it becomes the fourteenth state to have abolished the death penalty, it also significantly becomes the first to have opted for abolition since the Supreme Court’s 1972 Furman v. Georgia ruling, which suspended the death penalty until 1976. Secondly, the findings of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission act as a useful reminder that even if the court force changes to lethal injection, continuing a pattern of incremental reform that has seen the penalty outlawed for juvenile and mentally retarded offenders, the practice remains deeply flawed.

The bipartisan panel proved the main influence on New Jersey’s decision, with twelve of the thirteen members recommending abolition. Its findings reaffirmed the absence of any deterrent effect; those who are surprised by this forget that the majority of killers act on pure impulse, not rationality, making the consequences of their acts an irrelevance. Additionally, the risk of executing the innocent, though diminished by DNA testing, still stands against the death penalty. However, it was ultimately an economic argument that proved most persuasive to state legislators. Despite not actually executing anybody since reinstating capital punishment in 1982, New Jersey has spent $256 million just to maintain the execution infrastructure.

Two things now seem clear in the campaign for abolition. Firstly, that the US electorate are most likely to back change if the alternative offered is life sentence without parole. While 64 per cent continue to support the use of the death penalty, a slight majority now favour the alternative of imprisonment without release, adopted by New Jersey. Secondly, that the cumulative effect of detailing the practical defects of the death penalty is what turns many decisively against its use in principle. Thus, while principle should always take precedence over practice, it would seem for now that appeals to the wallet will be more effective than those to the heart.


November 30, 2007

Shutting Down the Death Machine

Albert Camus’s 1957 essay Reflections on the Guillotine, which along with The Rebel received special notice from the Nobel committee that awarded him that year’s literature prize, opens with an account of his father’s reaction to witnessing an execution for the first time. Despite having previously lamented the mildness of decapitation for a mass-murderer, his father returned white and trembling, and vomited repeatedly. He made no further statement on the practice. This, Camus argued, proves that shock at the barbarity of capital punishment trumps the initial thirst for revenge. Those of us who campaign for the international abolition of what Camus aptly termed “administrative murder”, should be encouraged by recent events.

The first was the result of the Polish election, which saw voters remove the chauvinistic Law and Justice party from office. It was the Polish government that alone blocked plans by EU member states to inaugurate a continent-wide day of protest against capital punishment. The second was the emergence that there may be no more executions in the US until the middle of next year. What began as a Supreme Court review of the legality of lethal injection has now evolved into a de facto moratorium. Since the successful challenge brought by two men on death row in Kentucky, the court has intervened in Texas, Virginia and Mississippi to block executions. State prosecutors have picked up on this pattern, causing the execution rate to fall to 42 this year, the lowest level for a decade. Significantly, of the 37 capital-punishment states, only Nebraska uses the alternative of the electric chair.

For now, the question of the practice of the death penalty is taking precedent over that of principle. Public backing for its use remains robust. The most recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum put support for the death penalty for murder at 64 per cent, a figure that has not dipped below 50 per cent since 1966.

The case against the death penalty is complete on principle; murder does not become legitimate in the shadow of prior murder. The circles of pain and hatred are only widened as the loss to the victim’s family is followed by that to the defendant’s. George Bernard Shaw expressed this point best when he argued, “It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.” In a court review extremely unlikely to end the death penalty itself, we can at best hope that renewed accounts of its sordid operation will lead more to abandon the delusion that the death penalty can in any sense be ‘humanised’.

The lethal injection is the latest in a long line of methods originally conceived as benign alternatives to their brutal predecessors, but which swiftly pass into horrors of their own kind. The drugs of the injection, often resulting in prolonged and sometimes horrific pain, are now not even used on animals. Nor does the involvement of humans ameliorate the hit of the chemicals. To the contrary, since many professional doctors refuse to be involved, the deed is often contracted out to inexperienced correctional officers-with decidedly shaky hands. Yet these final acts by the gurney are not the beginning of a rotten process but rather the culmination.

The rhetoric may be of ‘zero tolerance’ but the reality is profoundly arbitrary. A mere 2 per cent of murders are punished by the death penalty. The chosen few are more often distinguished by their race or class than by the relative severity of their crimes. A defendant who kills a white person is four and a half times more likely to receive the punishment than one who kills a black person. Those too poor to afford adequate legal representation are often decisively disadvantaged. To argue that criminals shouldn’t land themselves in this distorted system in the first place, would be to forget the hundreds who spent decads on death-row before their innocence was found. That the practice mirrors the wider inequalities of society should not come as a surprise. But I still meet conservatives who daily scorn the apparent inefficiencies and abuses of state-run schools and hospitals, and yet also maintain that this same blundering state should hold the power of life and death over its citizens.

We are sure to hear much elevated talk of compromise and reform at the Supreme Court, once again a collision with the resounding point that human dignity demands abolition will be delayed, but it should not be denied.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 22/11/07


December 27, 2006

The Shame of Hanging Saddam

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,1978665,00.html

Albert Camus’s Reflections on the Guillotine opens with an anecdote of his father’s relish as he prepares to attend the execution of a man who murdered a family of farmers. His father laments the leniency of the guillotine for such a crime, and makes his way to join the baying crowd. He says no more upon his return, instead, he lies down and begins to vomit repeatedly. Camus argued that this should be the response of any reasonable human. The sense of nausea and revulsion i feel at the death penalty was one of my earliest moral responses.

I felt that same revulsion yesterday evening when i heard that an Iraqi appeals court has resolved to apply to its former tyrant a practice which can only appeal to the basest and most brutal human instincts. When Saddam’s original sentence was passed some put the strange but recurring argument to me that the death penalty becomes of none or of lesser concern when murderous dictators are involved. The absurdity of this argument would commend it to the dustbin of history were it not for the prominence it retains, blazoned as it is across the frontpages of best-selling tabloids.

Those who argue this are perpetuating the very barbarism they claim to be punishing. By breathing new death into the worst instincts of humanity they further guarantee the prevalence of the crimes they claim to despise. As Camus saw, ‘it is obviously no less repulsive than the crime, and this new murder, far from making amends for harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one.’ Or as George Bernard Shaw argued ‘It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.’

Too many understand the primary role of the law to be punishment. It should not be this at all, but rather the prevention of future crime. The death penalty is an emotional retaliation to murder rather than a rational, moral refutation of it. Human nature being malleable, the law should appeal to our better natures. All this applies equally to the execution of dictators. For human rights are either universal or they are nothing.

The pernicious effects of the death penalty go further. Those who argue for it help to ingrain a truly coercive conception of the relationship between the state and the individual. This has its effects in the field of nuclear weapons, the indiscriminate nature of which amount to states regarding individuals as disposable property.

Changes of leadership in Iraq have often been marked by the execution of the previous encumbents. Iraqis face a great struggle to salvage any tangible benefits from the immoral and disastrous invasion. But the abolition of state murder in their country would have been one. I should credit President Talabani and Deputy Prime Minister Salih here for taking this position. Given the chance Talabani would have refused to sign a death penalty but a special law established for the tribunal denies him this right. The trial itself fell far beneath legal standards meaning any verdict was as Human Rights Watch argued, ‘too unsound’ to stand. The political meddling that removed a judge for being ‘too lenient’, epitomised the often farcical events. All twists and turns pointed to a pre-established conclusion; that Saddam would be hanged.

Moreover, the trial has only examined the torture and murders in Dujail following an attempt on Saddam’s life. The rather different outcome that is now imminent leaves his other trial regarding the Anfal campaign against the Kurds eternally paused. His reprisals against the 1991 Kurdish and Shi’ite uprisings have been ignored. The trial has the stink of a hasty set of affairs driving towards a grimly inevitable ruling. How convenient that the Anfal campaign, when the US and UK colluded with Saddam, has only been skimmed. Destroying Saddam now means we lose the opportunity of ever achieving a lasting, comprehensive indictment of his rule. His victims are patrionised by this fumbled, half-baked trial. They are left with American platitudes and hypocrisy.

This trial should have assembled for posterity an inalienable judgement against the horrors of the old Iraq. Instead, it has been doused in the horrors of the new.


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