Sunday, April 12, 2009

On Capital Punishments - Old and New

I had a lot to say on Capital Punishments, and now I'm parched to say anything more. Below is my argument against capital punishments, when I was all of 20 years old. I shamelessly showcase my weak arguments that carry an air of amateurish faith in humanity. I had no concept of brevity, so excuse my rambling and silly analogies. I didn't want to edit and tarnish my pitiable innocence/stupidity.

My thoughts as they were in May 2004

Its very true that practically speaking, we have no time on our hands to actually sit down and have a diplomatic talk over a cup of tea and try to sort things over with terrorists; because when we’re busy talking, a minimum of 200 new problems seem to crop up. With terrorism and ruthless violence at their hilt, we have no patience to talk about reforming people. I mean its hard enough to make someone close to you, understand your viewpoint, how the heck is a hard core criminal going to be reformed by you?? So I guess all that justifies us to play God and arrange for these people to be shipped to what we call as hell.

Consider this analogy. At 5, when you loved to doodle on the walls (well, I used to), and your mom wagged her rolling pin at you, and said “next time I see you scribble you’re going to be spanked like crazy!”, did you stop doodling or whatever sin you were prohibited from doing?? Well, I found a way though…I started doodling at the back of our bed, the side of the fridge not visible to my mom, and on the last page of my dad’s files. It wasn’t until packing day that my parents realized that they had a sly imp living with them! One of my friends always says that he invariably makes it a point to execute that deed that he’s begged to not do. Tell a child not to put down that glass vase cos it will break and give him a dire threat, and you’ll at once see a twinkle in his eyes and he’ll make sure that it shatters into a million dazzling pieces in front of your horrified face. Well the child is not evil, he just loves the pleasure of seeing something created……he cant create a glass vase at 3 (he realizes that), but he can always create a mess; a million sparkling pieces of glass is according to him a new creation or ‘evolution’ of that drab vase, which his mom used to love, when he was supposed to be the only one there to be loved. How many of u guys have been obedient sons in listening to your dad in coming home early? Although the punishment is severe you’ve always found a way out to smuggle into the house and out of the house, thanks to darling mama’s help.

My point is, do corporal and brutal punishments serve their purpose of getting the ethics into our head? Copying during exams is considered a major ‘crime’, and severe punishments are meted out. But then why do I still find the guy sitting next to me, turn a complete 180 degrees to mime out the answer to his friend, when the invigilator turns her back? If bits are out, a new style comes in; make noises with ur bootstrap…the number of times the velcro is stripped out indicates the question no., a small dull ripping sound, indicates “sorry buddy have no clue.”, a nice enthusiastic rip, kinda like a roar means “yup! I know that……”, and several more that I couldn’t spare time to gauge.

I know what u’re thinking...doodling or breaking a vase isn’t a crime. We’re dealing with hard core rapists and murderers. All the same we are dealing with people whose minds work just as bizarre…only differing in magnitude. America seems to be Laden’s glass vase that’s all. Its weird to be wagging a lethal injection, or swinging a threatening sword to warn people from indulging in what the ‘society’ calls as a crime. In one culture, it’s a moral privilege for a man to have more than 1 wife, yet in other cultures it’s a mortal sin. In Saudi, a dad has the right to execute his daughter or cut off her arm, if the tip of her hand is accidentally shown. So what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’?? We are humans...not animals to be exterminated when considered pests.

Every time a brutal punishment is meted out to us, God knows how we cringe and crib inside with the injustice of it all, the atrocity and the humiliation that we swear passionately to make the scores even...but if u’re dead, u don’t have a chance. So now that’s the whole point isn’t it? remember the time u got spanked and humiliated...can u remember feeling that hate, anger, bitter resentment(at being caught……) and most of all that feeling of being so helpless in the midst of savage people who know nothing abt fair play. From the time we got our first black mark for coming late to school to this day when our internals zoom down, we never seem to realize where we’re going wrong. Have these punishments served their purpose? Its always considered the height of cruelty and injustice when u’re suspended from college for punching another guy’s nose to a pulp, because the child inside u is whining, "u don’t know the whole story, u don’t know who started the fight, u don’t know why I hit him, u don’t know he hit me first, u don’t know that he provoked me, u don’t know that I’m not a heartless guy to rip another fellow’s nose…!”. There u go u have a reason, and u didn’t do it in the heat of the moment, and had actually planned and called for a fight at the back alleys to settle things out -man-to-man.

If we can get so passionate and if we can so virulently support our cause, over a simple college fight, why cant we extrapolate this to more serious matters and more passionate people. I’m in no way trying to justify crimes……not at all. Ask yourself whether u’ve ever felt justified at being punished, brutally. When did u finally realize that its wrong to hurt people physically?

a) when your mom had a heart-to-heart talk with u
b) when your dad yelled his head off abusing u unfairly
c) when your teacher caned u with that mean stick


I understand that things have gone far out of our reach to actually mend in a more rational way. I know capital punishment in India is not meted out with a snap of one’s fingers, thanks to our judiciary. I realize that it does solve the purpose of curbing a country’s crime rate, but our Vedas state “Saama…Dhaana…bedha…dandam”, escalating towards brutal punishments as a final resort. The essence of punishments always is towards reformation of the individual, and not to seek out revenge or to brutally afflict physical pain that is only going to madly fuel his already insane passion and anger. I’m therefore strictly against mutilation. With capital punishment, a rapist or a hard core terrorist dies with the helpless thought that he cant get even with this cruel world, not a whit of remorse for having killed any innocent person, as a matter of fact he would love to stab his executor…if only he wasn't tied up.

Sadly, that is the plight of our present crisis; no time to reform, no time to realize abt ethics of punishments. So call out those docs and let them poke out as many terrorists as they can snare. God knows that the doc is no paragon of virtues himself, but aint he clever enough to not get caught?? That’s all that matters. Sorry if I’m sardonic, but my heart can never accept the concept of a fellow human being killed, in the name of punishment. It can be argued as the need of the moment, but call it termination, please do not word it as a ‘punishment’. Punishments must have a post-period…a period of realization.

Punishment is to make a man realize his deeds and it thus hopes to reform him. If we are too busy for all that, terminate him…but don’t call it punishment, for the man no longer lives to realize that.

And now, 5 years later - "America seems to be Laden's glass vase", whatever did I mean by that?! That's such a hilarious statement. The essay above had little to do with capital punishments and more to do with the topic of "corporal punishments - their ethics", or "reforming kids in school". Or maybe not even that. Notice how I've eluded from giving a solution - I've argued against brutal punishments, but offered no solution except "reformation "- just by showing compassion and treating terrorists through counseling or psychotherapy. I seriously thought it would be that easy to reform criminals? I compare college kids to criminals and argue they are same in principle and a little different in magnitude... religious fundamentalists versus silly teenagers?!! Thank god I rambled in an electronic media unaware of all the sneering and swearing and rotten vegetables spewed on me.

I no longer can find enough energy or words to argue or say anything on capital punishments. With my throat and mind resembling a parched well, I can't even find enough words, or reason to make a loved one merely glimpse at my side of the coin. Reformation of hardened fundamentalists by banking on implicit human goodness? Not going to happen. Long term solutions - plenty to speculate, but not enough fire to voice them. I resign to change the term to "termination" and make peace with it (ah, the oxymoron and irony). Either they live and wreak havoc for us, or they die and we are guilty of not resorting to more "humane" forms of reformation for their inhuman heinous crimes.


Perception said...

There are some points on which I actually agree with the old you. Though there is no way a kid could be compared to a terriorist, for most parts it can be accepted that something is wrong with the minds of those whose sole purpose is destroying life. And finding pleasure in it. A part of it, I believe is to seek attention, importance and above all power. Well yeah we can get out of the misery by simply passing a verdict of terminating such people but again that just provides them an easy escape. I would prefer a different solution- Consider this, what would cause pain and suffering to the person who wants disruption, violence, human and nature loss. I guess, the fact that inspite of him all this exists and there are more people who are on the side of good. No, I dont believe in following Gandhi. I want terrorists to be punished, but I dont want to put an end to their lives. I want them to live a long long life behind the bars, where they realise what freedom means, and each day that goes by they realise that the world is turning in a better place to live in-something they would have never wanted. So yeah capital punishment is just a mere escape for these kinds and they are prepared for it, the whole idea is to give them a life they never wanted!

Neeraja said...

Perception - Thanks for patiently going through my boring rambles :). I can understand your thoughts completely for they mirror my views from 5 years back. Sadly the world and people on it work in far more complex and devious ways. I used to think death was not a suitable punishment for no violent person fears it and wanted them to face a punishment that would seep in remorse and reformation from them. But with burgeoning prisons, it seems like a burden on money and resources to house such people, who while inside the prison, only result in more violence in the external world through more attacks, hijacks, blackmails and more devious schemes of planning, in addition to violence inside prison quarters. Hardened people hardly change.

The roots are too deep and it's like a yard gone out of control with weeds. While long term solutions to maintain the soil/ curb the causes is required, terminating the existing unbridled weeds in parallel sounds reasonable to me. It's beyond punishments, it's tuned into a battle.

SecondSight said...

Nice template !:)
I agree with both yous, actually! Going back to my well-beloved theme of mind-body connections, perhaps some day we'll be able to attribute the criminal mindset to a chemical imbalance. Until then, I'm not sure what the best solution might be... To say that compassion and faith in human goodness cannot reform a person would be to deny all optimism or hope.. and i wouldn't want to do that! At the same time, I do like what you say about termination, as opposed to punishment. When the crime is that severe, a clean break might be best. Why also twist the minds of those who have to keep the criminals captive- A clean break, for terrorists, serial rapists, Nazi war criminals- termination, as opposed to punishment..

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - You've taken the balanced approach, and I have just swing from one extreme to another :). Hopefully in a couple of years, I'll argue with myself and reach a semblance of balance and equanimity while assessing such problems. Regarding discovering the chemical imbalance causing violent behavior - don't you think it's more than just aggressive violence. The persistence to cling onto beliefs and exaggerate them to unrealistic extents, the inability to reason and objectively assess "truth", the way the mind gets dented due to trauma... too many complicated factors, that it almost seems incredible to associate them all to certain chemical imbalances...

Priya said...

I also agree with both the yous. Doesn’t both the yous still exist? Mine does, and I too keep switching from one to another, trying to justify one. In this issue, it is quite difficult to take one stance or another, especially by a person removed from the context of these heinous acts. We can only speak from a detached state.

This post prompted me to think of the other side - the victim or their family. How would they react to the “reform” or “termination” of the perpetrator? Would they be ok with the perpetrator of the crime living inside the prison, when their loved one is no more or has suffered? Or would they be averse to the thought of “end one life for another”? It is hard to say, because people are different. When they are in pain, we do not know what their hearts will desire. In fact, it is scary what it may desire regardless of what the laws dictate.

Personally, I agree that ending life is not a punishment and is inhuman. But I am not sure I agree that a violent person would not fear death. They would not fear taking another life. But their own? Only when they are backed by a large group of people involved in similar crimes, telling them what to do, are they able to do this - take their own lives. Personally, I think even they would have feared death when it came to them. At least for a minute.

Reforming them certainly is the most humane thing to do. But how is the big question? Putting them in prison does not automatically guarantee they would realize their folly or feel remorseful for their acts. And the costs. Let’s say they are reformed. Then what? What happens to their lives if they are out of prison? Is the society ready to mingle with them with an open mind? By reforming them, but not providing the freedom they once possessed, are we dooming their lives - or do they perhaps deserve that punishment?

I think reform or prevention should start at a more fundamental level. When families or friends realize that their loved ones are not acting normal, they will have to act socially responsible. We have to provide them education to discern right from wrong and to think rationally. And even if the toughest challenges keeps coming back at humanity, we should not let go of the compassion, hope and optimism that binds our string of life together. To forgive (very hard) and reform them is the greatest punishment they could get. Some books I came across; reform through education - Three cups of tea (inspiring story); Another one I didn’t read but seems somewhat connected to what we discuss here - Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption: Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, Erin Torneo: Books

Priya said...

Sorry, here is the link to that book

Picking Cotton

Neeraja said...

Thanks for suggesting the books Priya! I've actually heard about "Picking Cotton" and watched a one hour special on it on TV. It's a story about injustice and forgiveness - forgiveness from an innocent person charged guilty of rape! It's in the context of how unreliable eye-witness decisions really are (memory limitations).

And I agree about the need for long term solutions to start from grass roots level and education is surely one of them. But sadly, most of these criminals come from a horrific background devoid of a family unit or any kind of guidance/education, and in most cases these people have been victims of abuse and violence themselves. The more hardened the minds, the more difficult it gets to penetrate them.

And what after reformation is also pertinent - call it Karma, or any other term, their life cannot be completely normal. They will be forced to face the consequences of their actions through the baggage they carry. Sadly it cannot be helped. But the structure of the society should offer means of living after such reformation - else it's a vicious cycle and the person will fall back on his ways soon. Something prevalent in India.