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The Perversity of Death Penalty

OurIndonesia – In one of the first scenes of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1987), a young lawyer paraphrases the words of Karl Marx: “Since the days of Cain, no punishment has ameliorated the world nor intimidated it from committing crimes.”

Several years ago we showed it with friends from the Freedom Institute in Jakarta. The screening was a special one to me as it brought my thoughts back to Poland, where in the 1980s the reception of this film had generated the movement for the abolition of capital punishment. It became almost instantly an artistic commentary to the political reality.

In Jakarta, the film was just an excuse to discuss death penalty as such. We did not need to relate to politics, as back then Indonesia had de facto abolished capital punishment and none of us would expect that the moratorium would end in the process of democratisation in the country. This has recently been proven wrong.

We are all familiar with a variety of arguments against capital punishment: it fails to deter crimes, it sets vengeance as the priority of justice, it puts innocent lives at risk, it violates the right to live, and much more. To each of these a counterargument will be found, the most powerful of which employs the word ‘retribution’.

Retribution is the means to restore fairness and balance between burdens and benefits, whereby unfair advantage gained by the person who disrupted the balance would be taken away. That there is justice in retribution we might have to accept with common sense. But with common sense we would inevitably accept that handing down death sentence in retentionist countries for a range of crimes, not just for murder, is by no means a retributive measure.

Can the same be said about murder then? It is not, unless serial murderers would, for each of their crimes, be tortured till near-death experience before the actual execution. But this is too cruel, isn’t it? Would we do that? By our own hands? No? By whose hands then?

All of the methods of execution are obviously likely to cause enormous suffering. Even if at some point in history several of these methods had been considered ‘humane’. And years after that they had proven to be exceptionally cruel. Thus, quite naturally the debates over capital punishment usually turn to the application of the death penalty.

Most of us, abolitionist or not, stand against cruel treatments, not only of people but generally of all sentient beings. What we do about it is another thing, yet by principle we are against it. And so was the 18th century physician, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who proposed the use of a machine later named after him, as a humanitarian way of putting an end to lives of people sentenced to death.

He believed that the “simple mechanics” of guillotine lessened the cruelty of execution and saved the convicts from excruciating pain. It was a philanthropic machine aimed to serve the dignity of man. Today the use of this once considered benevolent and progressive instrument is generally acknowledged a crime against humanity.

Medical examinations upon which Albert Camus based his essay “Reflections on the Guillotine” (1957) have shown that death by decapitation is a slow process accompanied by unfathomable agony that lasts several minutes or even hours. Death is not immediate: intestines ripple, heart produces incomplete movements, muscles fibrillate, and eyes in the severed head remain clear.

The report that Camus quoted is much longer and, as he said, one cannot read it without blanching. Yet, while probably reinforcing our distaste against the application of the capital punishment, it does not touch the perversity of the death penalty itself. And neither did Camus in his other works, despite the acutely insightful abolitionist discourse he upheld since the publication of The Stranger (1942).

It took another great Frenchman to approach the death sentence in terms of a paradoxical finality. In 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 Jacques Derrida’s seminars at École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris were devoted to the subject of death penalty. Since last year the first part of these seminars has been available in English as The Death Penalty, Volume I: The Seminars of Jacques Derrida.

Derrida sees death penalty as the only example of death whose instant is calculable by a machine, by all sorts of machines: the law, the penal code, the anonymous third party, the calendar, the clock, the gallows, the syringe, the guillotine or other apparatus which puts an end to life. The calculated decision by which life ends, paradoxically, is putting an end to finitude that belongs to life by its very nature.

My life is finite but I do not know, I cannot know and I would rather not want to know when I am going to die. Death penalty, the mechanically calculated moment of death, deprives one of life, but also of the experience of finitude, it takes control over time and future. Only a finite living being can have a future, be exposed to its uncertainty and incalculability.

In one of the last scenes of Kieślowski’s Short Film About Killing, a prison guard interrupts the last conversation between the convict and his lawyer, “Sir, the prosecutor is asking if you are finished now.” The lawyer stands up, approaches the guard and says, “Please tell the prosecutor that I will never say ‘now’.”

The perversity lies not in the execution of a death penalty, but in its very principle that claims mechanical and, thus, inhuman control over something essentially human.