Shall we kill the killers?
It’s a sadly familiar scenario, a sign of our times, perhaps. Members of a community gather in sympathy of a victim of some senseless act of violence, expressing solidarity with the family of the victim, despair at the lawlessness of the society that spawned the atrocity, and anger at the authorities seemingly powerless in their duty to protect the citizens. “We are gatvol!” (fed up), they chant, “Enough is enough!”, and inevitably, “Bring back the death penalty!”
These sentiments are just some of the many manifestations of discontent that, over twenty years after the end of apaardheid, so many South Africans feel. But, amidst this discontent, one aspect of the state of our nation that rarely attacts the ire of the people, that has rightfully become one of those universally lauded features of all that is great about the “New South Africa” is its progressive constitution. Academics, populists, liberals, leftists, socialists, libertarians, jurists, politicians, and just about anyone else in South Africa one could care to name stand united before this masterly work despite their many and often vociferously expressed differences. The constitution is the embodiment of all that is great about this country.
It is ironic, then, that that it is because of this very same constitution that the death penalty that angry, fearful and frustrated citizens call to be reinstated has been effectively eliminated, in a judgement that explicitly acknowledges that it is not what the people want that is important, but rather what is right and good. And, for us in South Africa, the standard by which right and wrong is to be judged is our constitution.
I have frequently during my lifetime found myself at odds with my community, often in the context of what is commonly accepted as normal and acceptable by those around me, and how I perceive these same things to be unacceptable and often downright wrong. The death penalty is a particular example of this.
I recall, as a young teenager, hearing a news bulletin about a man, a murderer, who was to be hanged for his crime. There was no connection between this guy an me; he was not of my family, not from our town, church, or any other community connection. I did not know him from a bar of soap. And yet, I imagined the horror of the act of execution, I imagined how he must feel as the final hours of his life on earth dragged on, and I felt an intense anger that any human could assume for themselves the right to take that man’s life, no matter how vile an act he may have perpetrated.
Since then, I have always believed that nothing could justify the act of taking another person’s life. I have heard argument for and against the death penalty. I have read, for example, that studies have shown that, as a deterrent, it is ineffective. I have heard that there is often bias in the application of it, that priveledge somehow makes one immune to it, whereas destitution and disempowerment does the opposite. I have heard of the many, many instances where a condemned person is subsequently exonerated, and terrifyingly often, posthumously.
And, while all of these may well be perfectly valid arguments, against the ultimate sanction, arguments which were indeed taken into account in the judgement that effectively eliminated the death penalty in South Africa, they do not explain the fundamental core of why I reject the legitimacy of putting a person to death.
Firstly, I believe that fundamentally, sentencing someone to death is an act of retribution, of vengeance, of exacting revenge. It may be cloaked in institutional due process, carried out in terms of due process, managed dispassionately by an organ of the state, and subject to rules, controls, checks and balances. But, nevertheless, it is fundamentally an act of vengeance for some person’s wrongful actions.
Secondly, I believe that, no matter how the act is carried out, no matter what those responsible for such acts of killing do to try to cover the act in some sort of cloak of decency, it is fundamentally a barbaric and inhuman act. An act that no human should be arrogant enough to claimed participate in with a clear conscience, whether directly or by proxy. An act which is ultimate and irreversible.
It is this that informs my personal belief that the death penalty is deeply and absolutely indefensible, unethical and on a very basic level, totally wrong. I salute the late Arthur Chaskalson and his colleagues who, in their judgement that the death penalty was fundamentally inconsistent with the then draft constitution of our country, made the point that it was primarily the two individual humans rights that underpin our constitution namely, that of the right to life and to human dignity, that so absolutely weighs against the barbarity and inhumanity of killing a human, that informed their judgment.
For me, those who bay for the blood of the criminal are debasing themselves to the level of the criminal.