Saturday, 7 March 2015

Killing People is Always Wrong (Andrew Chan & Myuran Sukumaran)

Indonesia is about to execute two Australian men, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, for trafficking drugs. They were arrested in 2005 after a tip-off from the Australian police, and they were actually trying to get their heroin into Australia, not Indonesia. They were nevertheless arrested and tried in Indonesia, where drug smuggling is a capital offence, and it seems that they operated in a gang with seven others, now known as the 'Bali Nine'. Sukumaran and Chan were considered to be the ringleaders, and their death sentences have not been overturned; the rest are serving long prison sentences. The Australian government has been pleading with Indonesia not to kill them, but there doesn't seem to be any hope now. They will probably be shot to death in the next couple of weeks.

Killing someone who is at your mercy is always wrong. I accept that it might be necessary to kill someone who is about to kill somebody else in order to prevent them from going through with it, but even then it can't be considered a good thing - only a necessary one. With capital punishment, we're talking about a group of people sitting down and deciding to end a human life, to halt forever that person's experience of the universe. We're talking about deciding to kill a human being who isn't an immediate threat to others. And in the case of death penalties for drug smuggling - fairly common in Southeast Asian law - we're talking about killing a captive human being who isn't an immediate threat to others and who wasn't even an immediate threat to others in the first place.

It's not that I approve of drugs or smuggling illegal things to make some quick cash, and I certainly wouldn't advise injecting heroin into your body. But it seems to me that death should be a punishment only in the direst of circumstances, when there is no choice but to kill.

Killing humans is always wrong, even when it's necessary, and I'm far from convinced that killing drug smugglers is a necessity. I'm not particularly interested in justifying that with reference to an absolute foundation, primarily because I don't believe it really needs justifying (and also because I don't believe in absolute foundations), but if pressed I'd say that humans are some of the only sentient beings that we know of, beings capable of experiencing the universe and making sense of their surroundings. It shouldn't be a routine or legal thing to put a stop to a sentient being's experience, and to come together as a society and decide to kill a person - one of the few things capable of apprehending its own existence and the existence of other things - seems impossibly barbaric.

The death penalty doesn't work, either. Deterrence is no doubt an important aspect of policing and justice, but what matters there isn't the penalty itself - it's the likelihood of being caught. If you think you're certain to be caught, you won't commit the crime; if you think you have a good chance of getting away with it, a harsh punishment isn't going to stop you.

The death penalty has an uneven impact (if any) on crime rates: the USA, where several states still decide to kill captive human beings, has a murder rate several times that of Germany, where they don't do that. Meanwhile, Russia has double the murder rate of the USA despite not executing criminals, and Japan has a lower rate than Germany even though they hang people now and then.

The lesson there is that, in the absence of an effective system of justice, harsh penalties are worth very little. The terror of the punishment isn't the deterrent: the inevitability of it is. I suppose Chan et al came to the conclusion that their being caught wasn't particularly likely. If you want to deter people from killing other people (or, say, trafficking heroin through your country), the best way to do it is to ensure that the police force is reasonably well-paid, well-organised, and diligent in their pursuit of murderers or drug traffickers.

Even if you dispute this idea, you must at least acknowledge that it is possible to create a peaceful society with little violent crime without employing the death penalty - and since the death penalty involves people getting together and deciding to kill another person (a merciless and immoral thing to do), then I would say, and I hope you agree, that it would be a good idea to scrap it entirely, planet-wide.

I was happy when Jokowi was elected last year. I arrived in Jakarta in August just as the Indonesian courts were deciding in his favour in the vote-rigging trial. I saw him give speeches and discuss policy on the TV. All the expats I met in Indonesia, and most of the Indonesians, thought it was a good turn for the country: a President who wasn't troubled by allegations of corruption or cronyism and who came from outside the usual Indonesian political circles (to some extent). He seemed like a politically clean and democratic chap. Apparently, though, he's also somewhat bloodthirsty, given the number of executions that have taken place since he took power. Or perhaps he is merely populist: Indonesians overwhelmingly favour the death penalty.

So did British people in the 1960s, when capital punishment was abolished, and West Germans when it was abolished there, too. Liberal politicians who believed strongly in what they were doing abolished the practice of hanging captive human beings, and they bravely did this against public opinion. The British and German people were wrong to support execution back then, just as Indonesians, and the Indonesian government, are wrong to support it today. That's because, simply, killing a human being is always wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.