Front Porch | Capital punishment perpetuates a culture of revenge
In 1996, attorney, activist and writer Marion Bethel wrote movingly, brilliantly, of her anguish after two executions that took place in the country some years shy of the new century.
In “I’ll Fly Away”, she spoke at the 1996 International Conference of Caribbean Writers and Scholars at Florida International University a month after the hangings.
Bethel wrote: “There is no balm in the gallows, no quick fix to our problems. A brutally broken neck cannot be our highest response. A ravaged throat and a spilled tongue can no longer help to tell our story, give shape to our collective voice, sing the sad and hopeful songs of our vision.
“Our children will not forgive us for the quick fix of the gallows. They will despise our lack of creative possibilities, they will hate our legacy to them – a culture of destruction and death void of life-giving properties. What will they make of the gallows, the official state slaughterhouse?”
She continued: “What will our youth feel about this display of state manhood?… This staged, orchestrated and deliberate annihilation of youthful possibility! Must we remain within the master’s paradigm eliminating what we fear and hate, what we judge to be of no value, what we pretend not to understand, what we ourselves have created?
“The gallows cannot ease our anger and pain, cannot define the color and shape of our bruises, cannot illuminate our path to healing waters.”
Former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nassau, the late Lawrence Burke, S.J., lamented that many Bahamians often seemed more fixated on Good Friday, less seized by the assurance and promise of Easter Sunday.
His was an insight of a theological mindset resident in a culture steeped in religious fundamentalism with an attendant deep-seated negativity about the human condition and human possibility.
The image of the wrathful avenging God of much of the Hebrew Scriptures more often seems to hold our spiritual and religious imaginations and that of fundamentalist preachers, rather than the merciful Christ of the New Testament who rescued the woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death by a mob of the self-righteous determined to impose on her a capital punishment.
One’s image and understanding of God affects one’s Christian anthropology, i.e., one’s image and understanding of the human person and the human community affects one’s understanding of sin and redemption, as well as one’s views on a range of ethical issues such as capital punishment.
We tend to be a fundamentalist culture steeped in the psychology and theology of revenge and an eye for an eye. That we live in a culture where many believe that the ravages of a hurricane may be punishment from God, rather than a naturally occurring phenomenon, speaks to a certain mindset.
While some sort of a retributive response in terms of punishment is a necessary component of fundamental justice, retaliation is a different ethical species.
In terms of jurisdictions which retain capital punishment, The Bahamas is mostly not in the best of company.
This year South Africa is celebrating the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. His legacy includes an opposition to the death penalty born from his conviction that capital punishment perpetuated a culture of violence and revenge.
Reportedly, on the eve of the 1994 South African election which brought Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) to office for the first time, an election consultant from the U.S. advised the ANC to remove the moratorium on executions instituted by outgoing President F.W. de Klerk.
Mandela and his party were advised that such a move might help the ANC to win a two-thirds majority. He rejected the ploy to reinstitute hangings, though it would have been widely popular.
In a blog posted online on in December 2013 titled “Mandela and the Death Penalty”, Carolyn Hoyle noted: “On a day when the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, it is worth remembering his role in de Klerk’s remarkable move to abolish the death penalty in South Africa.
“Despite the fact that the South African Transitional Constitution of 1993 was silent on the matter of whether or not the death penalty was permissible, the attorney-general, in line with President Mandela’s long-held belief that the death penalty was barbaric, brought a case before the Constitutional Court, arguing that the death penalty should be declared unconstitutional.
“The Court, in the landmark judgment of The State v T. Makwanyane and M. Mchunu in 1995 decided that capital punishment was incompatible with the prohibition against ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading’ punishment and with a ‘human rights culture’ which made the rights to life and dignity the cornerstone of the constitution. A further influential argument was that it would be inconsistent with the spirit of reconciliation, post-apartheid.
“Despite the fact that political parties such as the Freedom Front Plus, the Christian Democratic Party, and the Pro-Death Penalty Party have argued for reinstatement of capital punishment in South Africa, on the grounds that it is necessary to reduce the country’s very high homicide rate, it is very unlikely that there would be a parliamentary majority for the constitutional amendment that would be necessary. Such is the legacy of Nelson Mandela.”
It is a source of bemusement and amusement that some who often lionize Mandela are less apt to follow his legacy.
Mandela, like many others, opposed the death penalty for a complex of reasons, a prime one of which is the possibility of the state executing an innocent person.
The late Paul Adderley, an accomplished jurist who served as attorney general, argued to this columnist that his opposition to capital punishment was not for many of the so-called “moral” reasons as offered by other opponents.
Adderley’s opposition, though argued on practical grounds, was also ethical. He was empathetic that the possibility of the state executing an innocent person rendered capital punishment unacceptable.
Paul Adderley went even further. He noted that he knew of at least one case in which the state executed a man for a murder that he did not commit.
Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham noted of the death penalty: “One of the horrors of capital punishment is that there is no remediation for a mistake. An innocent man executed because he was wrongly convicted remains dead even if a court of law subsequently determines that he was innocent.”
The list of such wrongful convictions and executions are long in every country in which capital punishment is practiced. There remains concern over perhaps two possible mistaken executions in The Bahamas in the past several decades.
In criminal law there is a formulation usually attributed to English jurist William Blackstone but which can also be traced back to Biblical precepts which admonishes: “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
Scholars point out that the actual numbers (ratios) are not generally seen as important, so much as the idea that the state should not cause undue or mistaken harm “just in case”. So the state, and most particularly democratic states, act so that their courts “err on the side of innocence”.
Genesis 18:23-32: Abraham drew near, and said, “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked? What if there are 50 righteous within the city? Will you consume and not spare the place for the 50 righteous who are in it?… What if 10 are found there?” He [the Lord] said, “I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.”
State-sanctioned violence in the form of capital punishment reinforces a culture of violence, demeans the value of human life and serves no useful anti-crime purpose in terms of deterrence.
Statistics show that capital punishment has not been a deterrent to future murders in any country. Countries that practice capital punishment do not necessarily record lower crime or murder rates than do countries that have abolished capital punishment.
To the contrary, many countries that abolished capital punishment have far fewer murders annually than do those that continue to execute convicted murderers, for example the European Union countries versus the United States of America.
The moral arguments touted by many in The Bahamas for capital punishment seem more like those of revenge. The greater moral burden for proponents is the likely possibility of the state executing innocent people in our name. Such a possibility is unjust and neither humane nor Christian.
In our justifiable outrage at crime and our responsibility to punish those convicted of murder we need not stoop to the level of brutality nor compromise our sense of justice and fairness by maintaining a system that is bound to make the grave error of killing an innocent person, an error that can never be rectified.
At the heart of the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church is a vision of human dignity animated by the consistent life ethic popularized by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. This ethic opposes abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, capital punishment and unjust wars as offenses to human dignity.
Such a consistent life ethic is worthy of consideration as we seek to uphold life and to create a less violent Bahamas.
Today’s column is excerpted from two previous columns on capital punishment.
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