Death penalty - who is up for a killing? - Commander S THAYAPARAN (Retired) Royal Malaysian Navy
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Malaysiakini : “But secondly you say ‘society must exact vengeance, and society
must punish’. Wrong on both counts. Vengeance comes from the individual
and punishment from God.” ― Victor Hugo, ‘The Last Day of a Condemned Man’
COMMENT | I have never had a
problem with the idea of killing but I am one of those people who is
against the death penalty. When Pakatan Harapan promised to abolish the
death penalty, I was all for it. I still am. With the cabinet decision
of abolishing the death penalty for 32 offences including murder, the Harapan government is on its way of removing the death penalty from our judicial system.
The recent case of a toddler who died
because of a sexual assault, however, has brought forth the revenge
fantasies of those who are for the death penalty and, of course,
political operatives who are ever ready to pander to angry mobs. The
horrific death of an infant offers the opportunity for some to put
forward the idea that the death penalty be retained for certain cases.
This is morally and intellectually reprehensible but predictable.
Does everyone who kills an infant deserve death? Would it matter if
that person were mentally ill or in drug-induced fugue? What of people
who intentionally kill babies? I once had an interesting conversation with a police officer. She was
part of a team attempting to find a young teen who had thrown her
new-born baby into a storm drain. The baby’s body was smashed to a
bloody pulp when it hit the pavement. I do not know why but what I kept
imagining was the baby gurgling with laughter or wailing in frustration
as the infant dropped to the pavement.
Does this girl deserve the death penalty, I asked this middle-aged
Muslim police officer. “Unlike many in my religion who believe
otherwise, I know only God can punish with death, Thaya” and added, “but
I hope this young girl feels so guilty that she kills herself before we
I thought that was an honest reply, especially in the context of
divine punishment as the only form of “justice” in the Victor Hugo (photo)
quote that opens this piece. One sin leads to another and some sort of
divine justice is achieved. Or so the godly think. Do you have a problem
with killing a child because he or she killed an infant?
Do it yourself
Any discussion of the death penalty devolves into an emotional
argument which I find hypocritical. Self-righteousness is always easy.
Some people when arguing about the death penalty attempt rhetorical
challenges like, “imagine if your family member was raped or killed,
would you not want the death penalty then?” or some variant of this line
of argumentation. This is silly for two reasons.
The first is what about those people who have lost loved one through
violence but who are against the death penalty? Is it so hard to believe
that people could possibly not want the state to execute people on
their behalf? Is it so hard to believe that for some the bereavement
process does not include or end with the death of the perpetrator? This is not only a failure of imagination but also ignorance of the
nuance of death penalty debates. Don't the voices of compassion carry as
much weight as those of retribution?
Yes, you will never really know how you will react until it happens
to you. You may want to kill the person who did this your loved one or
you may see no reason or comfort in the vengeance by proxy of the state.
And this is where the first component of Hugo’s quote about individual
vengeance comes into play. An honest hypothetical when it comes to the death penalty is this. If
someone you knew wanted to kill the perpetrator of a heinous crime
visited on his or her family, what would you say if there was no death
penalty? Would you say let the law handle it instead of your friend
committing a crime?
Or would your friend’s grief outweigh the consequences by the state,
especially if the state does not have the death penalty and you really
did believe that some people deserved death? I know what I would say. As
I said, I never had a problem with the idea of killing.
You can’t imagine how it feels when someone you loved is violently
taken for you. You cannot understand the desire for vengeance. Some
people want the perpetrator to die and want the state to kill them. Some
people have no such interest and believe that the state cannot make
such decisions. If it sounds as if I am saying that immediate family members should be able to kill the perpetrators of violent crimes, then
this is exactly what I am saying.
I loved to see the day when a political operative says that we do not
have the death penalty but when it comes to crimes like murder and
rape, then the exception is that the family members themselves can kill
the perpetrators to avenge their loved ones but the state will not do it
for them. Wouldn’t that be something?
Which crime deserves death?
I suppose there are statistics for and against the efficacy of the
death penalty but do those statistics matter when it comes to the grief
and vengeance that we are told is paramount by people who advocate the
death penalty. While I do not have an issue with individual vengeance, I do have a
problem with the state dealing in death. I do have a problem with how
the state defines crimes that necessitate the death penalty. I do have a
problem with the legal process which differentiates between classes of
people and the consequences of the crimes they commit. When it comes to
different types of crimes, the idea that some crimes are deserving of
death is always debatable. This is the most important reason why the
state should not have the power to kill people.
I think rape is probably the most heinous crime a person could
commit. Nearly every survivor I have spoken to says the crime has
changed them. Each of them in their own way has articulated the same
theme, which is the constant struggle to connect to normalcy, the
struggle to connect with other people. In worse cases, they are
estranged from the rest of humanity. Think about how rape is viewed in
patriarchy, which is why there will never be a death penalty for such
cases unless the victim dies, even though surviving rape often seems
like living with a death sentence.
Drug offences? Most people who are hung for this offence are so low
down the criminal food chain, their effects on society are minimal at
best. The real drug entrepreneurs are living in luxury. Most of them are
politically connected. Most of them laundering their money through
institutions that good god-fearing people use.
When not busy corrupting the state security apparatus, they are
corrupting the political process. Does the death penalty really seem
appropriate for those people who are so low down the food chain while
the real masterminds are probably propping up the banking institutions
and the economy of the country?
China shoots people for corruption. If there should be an exception
to the death penalty, is this it? Or maybe not. Maybe hard labour the
length of which is determined by the amount stolen. When it comes to the death penalty, the state is not an honest actor. How could it be? The legal process is flawed, weighted to specific racial and class
biases – my personal favourite is that retired judge who said that
Muslims are more trustworthy than non-Muslims - there is enough evidence
to support this.
The system defines crimes worthy of the death penalty is flawed and
open to debate, which makes it a tragedy that the state has the power of
life and death over its citizens. The security apparatus is corrupt and
open to interference. Our penal system is a breeding ground for
criminals and indeed perpetuates a cycle of violence and corruption. Let
us not even talk about the ridiculous religious justifications for the
We hand over too much power to the state even though we know the
system is compromised. You do not have to believe in god to understand
what Chekhov means - “The State is not God. It has not the right to take
away what it cannot restore when it wants to.”