The Death Penalty

I have a very deep antipathy toward the death penalty generally, but let’s consider its appropriateness in the Bali 9 case. Why do we punish wrong doers? For 3 possible reasons: to prevent or to discourage them from doing the thing they did, to deter others from doing this thing, and perhaps to extract some kind of ‘justice’ or ‘vengeance’ in the sense of ‘an eye for an eye’. Reason 1 doesn’t apply because Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were in prison, and from all signs were rehabilitated. Reason 2 doesn’t apply since the death penalty clearly doesn’t function as an effective deterrent against capital offences, probably because many of those that commit these offences are for a variety of causes rationally deficient. 

So that leaves Reason 3 as the sole reason for the execution. But the pair had already spent 10 years in prison when they were executed. Can it be reasonably argued that justice demands that drug traffickers be put to death, that prison terms are insufficient to redress the wrong they have done?

But of course these reasons are the explicit reasons -the reasons that legitimize the punishment- and the real reasons for the use of the death penalty in this case may be implicit. Whilst it isn’t true that the death penalty deters people who would otherwise not commit capital offences, it is true that the death penalty creates a climate of fear that enables a political state both maintain control over its members. It is no coincidence I suggest that the majority of countries in which the largest number of people are executed are undemocratic: the Top 10 executioners in 2013 were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, United States, Yemen, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan. But the presence of the United States on this list suggests that the unifying characteristic is something broader than democracy, and this characteristic may be corruption. Not all democratic countries are non-corrupt, but all non-democratic countries are corrupt, and if we look at the Corruption Perceptions Index (which includes 175 rankings and runs from the least to most corrupt) we find that United States came in as low as No 19 in 2013. According to Amnesty International, no country in the Top 10 least corrupt countries executed anyone in that year, and the 2013 corruption rankings for the top 10 2013 executioners are high:

China = 80

Iran = 144

Saudi Arabia = 63

Iraq = 171

United States = 19

Yemen = 167

North Korea = 175

Somalia = 175

Sudan = 174

Indonesia? 114

The United States still stands out from the other counties, but the fit between capital punishment and the corruption of this county is better than that between capital punishment and non-democracy.

The basis of the correlation there appears to be between capital punishment and corruption is that killing is a corrupt act, regardless of who performs it, and for what ostensible reason, and the state and its members – the whole and its parts- reflect each other. In the end the strongest reason to reject the death penalty may not turn therefore on the question of its effectiveness, but on the question of what kind of society imposes the death penalty.