The Death Penalty

Here’s an essay I wrote for a competition. The topic was “Does Death Penalty Actually Serve The Purpose Of A Punitive Deterrent?” and this was my answer to that question. I realised that this was where this would be most at home and so here it is.

Taking the life of a fellow human being has always been rife with moral quandaries. The defining factor in the arguments and debates that inevitably follow is the “why” of it. The reason behind the action. The only reason to have ever gained complete legal, if not moral, acceptance is justice. Death as the ultimate price to pay for one’s crimes. This is carried out, of course, by the governing body in the form of the controversial death penalty.

The death penalty is not above being questioned and we are seeing a worldwide shift, with an increasing number of nations opposing its existence. Our country though continues to rely on it as its apex punishment and this means that it believes that it does serve its purpose. The purpose being, as with all other punishments, to not only serve justice to the perpetrator of a crime but to deter others from doing the same. 

While it is easy to get lost in the questions of its morality and what crimes entail the death penalty and what don’t, what requires actual attention pragmatically is an evaluation of the death penalty in terms of its efficacy. Any evaluation first requires an assessment of the situation to determine the existence of a problem. The system of the death penalty is ancient and its implementation has stretched the limits of human creativity and cruelty. The ultimate test for any system is time. A system that truly does what it sets out to garners support and spreads, replacing less efficient systems. While moral and ethical reasons have always played a major role in determining support, pragmaticism cannot and has not been ignored.

When a system is opposed and then overthrown, a host of factors and reasoning is at work. The death penalty, which appeared to have survived the test of time, is today being abolished in an increasing number of countries. A move that is being hailed as a sign of the progress of modern human society, leaving behind barbarism for the higher ideals of morality, ethics and humanitarian solidarity. Not spoken about but just as important is whether the abolishment of the death penalty is also because of it failing its raison d’être. Was the death penalty more of a symbol than an effective answer to dealing with heinous crimes, offering instant gratification to the masses demanding justice by killing the criminal but letting the crime survive and contine unabated?

There’s no denying the fear that the death penalty instills in people and yet, even today, people continue to be hanged, electrocuted and killed in various manners ranging from humane to unspeakable for the same reasons that people were centuries and even millennia ago. Death penalty always has been a stopgap solution. Even today, debates are more concerned with its morality than its effectiveness. While individual enforcements of the death penalty have led to a concomitant dip in crime rates, these have always surged back once the event fades from the minds of the populace. The answer to this isn’t to publicise hangings or stage even more gruesome spectacles to create a lasting impression. History has shown us the resilience of the human mid to these tactics. This cycle has repeated itself throughout history and shall continue to until this ineffective method of addressing crimes isn’t replaced with something that actually works.  

Death penalty carries an air of finality. Those it is administered upon have been judged to be beyond redemption and this punishment is meant to scare others into not committing the same crime. It can be said that the death penalty is a sentence on those it is carried out on and a lesson to the rest. A prophylactic measure that is meant to be self limiting. Each time it is used is meant to reduce its future usage. Why then is this lesson not learnt? 

For each person who is cowed by the existence and enactment of the death penalty, there are those who are emboldened. This has always been a danger and the romanticisation of death and martyrdom hasn’t helped with this. Movies and literature have long thrived on tragedies, often portraying the death penalty as an unfair end to the just or even as a fitting end to be achieved after living life however you see fit. The death penalty in these cases loses its value as a deterrent and is instead a price to be paid. A form of salvation. All crimes would be redeemed as long as you surrendered to the law in the end. While a noble goal in terms of creating a sense of responsibility, it does away entirely with the idea of the death penalty serving as a warning. 

Never before has this been more dangerous than in today’s geopolitical climate. A great flaw in the system of the death penalty, though unavoidable in this connected a world, is that each individual enforcement of it is open to public scrutiny and interpretation. This is exploited to the fullest by terrorists and extremists, who use it to galvanise their forces. This is done by reframing the death penalty as the achievement of martyrdom. This simple change turns the death penalty’s purpose upside down, using that which was meant to stop to serve as the spark. Spread by word of mouth originally but expedited by today’s myriad forms of communication, this alternate version’s reach far outstrips the official version and hence undoes it.

The threat that terrorism poses to humanity cannot possibly be understated and it is terrorists who are most adept at twisting the vulnerable death penalty to their advantage. By continuing to let this system exist, we only continue to give them leverage. The death of one is used to raise an army of hundreds or thousands. Too easily is justice manipulated into having been an extremist action by a governing body unable to challenge the values of the individual. The “martyrs” loses their body but their ideas achieve immortality. Those who die in such a manner are said to have shown absolute dedication to their ideals, sacrificing their life but not compromising on them. They become ideals to be pursued themselves, feeding the zealous and serving to strengthen their resolve. 

The death penalty is made out to be the action of cowards. The act of killing the messenger instead of dealing with the message is seen as acknowledging the power of the message. And this is a problem that the death penalty is incapable of dealing with. The irony is that terrorists and extremists don’t just twist the truth. They also speak that part of it which we’d rather not hear. That it is a brutish solution to what is at its essence an ideological problem.  Yes, hypocrisy is inherent in their arguments as they are killers themselves but must we then descend to where they stand and become them in order to fight them? Is the death penalty all that different from the war they claim to wage if we too can only kill to show the strength of our beliefs and ideals? Do we, who claim the moral upper hand, not have an obligation to rethink our approach and do something more befitting the station we claim? 
I do not mean to let this devolve into yet another discourse on the morality of the death penalty. What I do hope I’ve achieved is to have offered some semblance of clarity on the painful limitations of the death penalty as a means of affecting change. To show what I believe is a fundamental flaw in the system. That it only eliminates the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself.  Research and even some silent introspection show that the true answer to reforming people and creating a change in the mindset of the masses requires something more subtle than this blunt and extreme approach. The change that the death penalty seeks to enforce by means of punishing viciousness can only be brought about by rewarding virtuousness. It is eduacation that can raise the minds of the people, letting them see farther and grasp the enormity of this world and the beauty of being human. What is required is a respect that lies at the core of each person for every other person. A respect for life itself, that most precious of gifts is what we must each carry within and cherish. How, oh how, could we expect death to foster that? 

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