Friday, May 7, 2010

Capital Punishment : Is Killing For Killing Ethical?

(Photo Mumbaikars including Muslims celebrating the verdict on Ajmal Kasab)

This much I can say : I have never felt any hatred or anger towards any of the killers, not even for a moment. And personally, I don't want the surviving terrorist to be given a death sentence. I would like to see him incarcerated for life and made to work for humanity.

If I were to sit with the killer, I would ask him to tell me about his family, about his childhood. I believe he came from a very poor background and the leaders of the terrorist group used him.

I was in Florida when I heard the news that my husband and my daughter were also killed in the Mumbai terror attacks. I collapsed on the floor. After weeping for a long long time, I went into myself and began to pray..

~ Kia Scherr, who lost both her husband Alan, aged 58, and her only daughter Naomi, aged 13, in the November 2008 terrorist attacks at Mumbai.

Capital Punishment is a lawful infliction of death as a punishment. It is an extreme form of retributive justice sentenced by the governing jurisprudence. As modern civilisational values grew over the last two centuries, this form of punishment began to be increasingly viewed as a barbaric form of cruelty and the efficacy of it as a deterrent measure became questionable. 
Countries like Venezuela and Portugal were the first nations to abolish the death penalty altogether as early as the 1850s. Today, it is virtually abolished in all of Western Europe and most of Latin America. Britain effectively abolished capital punishment in 1965. It is still not abolished in India, many states in the USA, China, Japan and many Asian, especially West Asian and African nations.

Ajmal Kasab is just a pawn, who was picked up from an impoverished family in Pakistan. He was trained and brain-washed to perpetrate such a heinous violence on the innocent denizens of Mumbai. By hanging Ajmal Kasab in India, what do we achieve? Next time, when the Taliban slits the throat of an innocent Muslim in Afghanistan and hangs him in public, how are we going to react? How do we understand the sentiments of Kia Scherr, who is another victim of Mumbai terror attacks? Though Ajmal Kasab is also a victim of terror, won't complete life imprisonment do much greater justice? Can't he be made to repent and wail till he dies? Won't those echoes reverberate on and on? And keep haunting the public memory?

It is time to ask profound questions : What are the factors which made an innocent Ajmal Kasab turn into a dreaded terrorist? Who are all responsible? How can real justice be done to all those complex issues that would crop up, if we start asking the real questions? Will terrorism of all kinds stop until we address the root-causes of it?

Since we do not want to get disturbed deeply and want to continue with our petty ways of living, we feel happy that the fool is finally hung and the files would shortly be closed.
And we call it as justice!


  1. Kia scherr is living the concept of forgiveness-it is in her bone marrow, in her every cell.So much so that she expresses no anger even once-rather, it may not have risen at all.Saintliness need not be found in the Himalayas only.
    When Tao is lost, there is goodness,
    when goodness is lost, there is kindness,
    when kindness is lost, there is justice,
    when justice is lost, there is ritual.
    -Tao te ching(38)
    Justice falls far far down in the way of life.Even Sonia Gandhi said that she forgave Dhanu, who was resposible for the death of Rajiv Gandhi.
    Lord,forgive them for they know not what they are doing-Christ

  2. Da blog raises da fundamental question of whether capital punishment shud be abolished or not. U seem to be pleading da case for da abolition of capital punishment as it is being done by da various human rights/civil liberties groups.

    When u ask wat is justice, u shud go deep into da debate between John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) & Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State & Utopia). Both of these important thinkers answer da complex issues involved in distributive justice, though they r opposed to each other.

    When u talk about punishment, u shud know from where u stand & argue. Whether from an Utilitarian or a Retributivist standpoint. Though both endeavour to maximise da total welfare of all da individuals, der'z a sea of difference between them. Only if u understand these basic distinctions, u can comprehend da concept of Jeremy Bentham's 'Panopticon', which was later on popularised by Michel Foucault in his 'Discipline & Punish'.

    Similarly 'Ethics' is a very interesting subject. Am currently teaching, rather studying, da subject of 'Ethics' at UCLA. There r two fundamentally differing perspectives : teleological & deontological. From here emerges da 'ends' vs 'means' debate starting from Immanuel Kant to Frances Kamm ('Principle of Permissible Harm') and from Buddha to Gandhi.

    U shud've started da blog by paraphrasing da description of public violence & torture of Robert-Francois Damiens in 18th century as detailed by Foucault in dat classic book & then got into these important theoretical issues, without which u can't make any deep sense of anything. Finally, u shud have ended da blog with da quote of Kia Scherr & da way u've ended, which has come out quite well.

    I may sound pompously pedagogic. But, without making da least bit of sincere efforts to comprehend da vast corpus of philosophical foundations & theoretical contours, if u attempt to write a blog on a subject like dis, it wud become a simplistic yap only. U shud put in more efforts to become more erudite like what u've sincerely done in a few of da earlier blogs.

    Inspite of these serious lacunae, u'r blog on da subject is interesting to read b'coz of da writing flair which u seem to be slowly acquiring. But my warning is dat u'r blog shud not degenerate into a shallow romantic hack rather than maturing into a scholarly endeavour.

  3. An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind, said Gandhiji.
    That statement of Kia Scherr is so touching.
    Agreed. Hanging Kasab is not a solution.
    But then what is the solution to such senseless terrorism?

  4. I accept the verdict and at its face value. I go with the commonly held view that some where some parents would warn their children away from joining terrorist groups and some people who know him would get the message. He cannot be compared to an innocent who may be hanged for petty reasons.

  5. red earth and pouring rainMay 8, 2010 at 11:21 PM

    no profound comment. Disorder in the society, failed state, economic/social inequality leads to many human predicaments. They react in expected and unexpected way and sorcerous fingers of FATE changes them from paupers to human bombers. Most of the time, pent up frustration is directed at weaker point. original sinners like Europe and America are able to manage the problem somehow. Lesser sinners but weaker ones like ours are facing serious problem.

    Can Ashish nandy, Noam chomsky, Arundhati Roy and still better theoreticians make us understand the reality in better way?. Are all these giving only partial understanding of the Labyrinths of reality more complex than Borges had imagined.

    Is it possible to discuss about justice easily?. Can atleast Scandinavian countries show us some way in the place of Americas and Chinas.

  6. Abou Ben Adhem
    Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
    Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
    And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
    Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
    An Angel writing in a book of gold:

    Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
    And to the Presence in the room he said,
    "What writest thou?" The Vision raised its head,
    And with a look made of all sweet accord
    Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."

    "And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
    Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,
    But cheerily still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
    Write me as one who loves his fellow men."

    The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
    It came again with a great wakening light,
    And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
    And, lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!

    -- James Leigh Hunt

  7. Kasab killed 160 people in that fateful night. Whether he was a pawn or not is immaterial from the standpoint of near and dear ones of those 160 people. How will this mass of people give solace to themselves. If Kasab is not given Capital punishment, he would continue to haunt this huge mass. Like Madhani, the accused of coimbatore blast. He was later on given VIP treatment by Thirus of Kerela & TN. Even the assembly passed a resolution for him. Same would happen in case of Kasab. If not given CP, a time will come when he could even be made a hero by our visionary politicians. The fact that the society is not able to heal the wounds of people affected by terrorist/other kind of violence makes them ask for severest of punishment to the perpetrators. They actually want to heal their wounds. If, as society/govt./civil right activist/human right champion, we can work out a strategy where we take care of the sufferers, only then we can argue for abolishing CP. Not before.

  8. Swaminathan PoornachandranNovember 21, 2012 at 11:57 PM

    Here is my 2 cents:
    I am hesitant to buy motherhood statements and do away with capital punishment. My hesitation stems from two very observable traits of human nature. The Reward-Punishment incentive adherence that all living creatures exhibit to a strikingly stunning degree and the tendency of humans to game the systems so well.

    Our ancestors knew that since the preservation of life/self is the prime incentive for nearly all of our actions, there is an undeniable advantage in fixing life as the ultimate price for straying from the straight and the narrow. All cultures, rulers and governments in history have played this card, pretty whimsically, in the last 10 thousand years to stifle dissent. Only in the last two centuries, with the presence of widespread democratization and the absence of permanent rulers, have we checked and brought down death sentences to a bearable minimum in most countries. So, it is natural for us, who happen to live in the best of times since human evolution, to ask the question, “Can we do away with death penalty?”

    The answer to this has to come from the second trait I mentioned above, I think. The human ingenuity is such that once we know the system, we start gaming it. Take Security for example. While a biometric pass code is a sure-fire security system for an illiterate mountain tribe, even such high-tech security is going to be compromised, albeit occasionally, in the so called “Knowledge Economy”, where some people know how it actually works. Here is another example in a day-to-day sense: once we have studied the boss, we adjust our behavior. The point is that we game systems right, left and centre. All the time.

    Since our nature is such, you can always expect a bunch of seasoned murderers, who are beyond repair due to their nature and nurture, beginning to game this No-Capital-Punishment System so very beautifully to their advantage. Currently, death penalty is pronounced, if we take what they keep saying at face value, in the rarest of rare cases. You may argue that keeping the rarest of rare murderers on the right side of the prison walls for life is a better punishment. But, the rarest of rare murderers by definition are beyond repair. Then, what are we going to achieve? And imagine the costs involved in keeping someone there for life. Why should society allocate resources for a losing cause?

    Once they know that they are not going to be asked to pay the ultimate price no matter what, there is no deterrence for would-be murderers. In fact, we are treading a dangerous territory here. If A kills B and the Government will not settle the matter properly, then the relatives of B are left to fend for themselves (knowing full well that they also will not be executed by the Government even if caught). We are entering a vicious cycle. I have a feeling that we will head back to the dark ages, slowly but surely.

    So, it is always better to allow self-interest to do the moral policing and what is more, it is cheaper. Put the ultimate price on murder. Let me end this post by quoting someone I don’t quote often, Maggie Thatcher.

    “Personally have always voted for the death penalty because I believe that people who go out prepared to take the lives of other people forfeit their own right to live. I believe that death penalty should be used only very rarely, but I believe that no-one should go out certain that no matter how cruel, how vicious, how hideous their murder, they themselves will not suffer the death penalty.”