Saturday, 3 December 2005

Murder by state okay?

[Cartoon by Nick Kim, courtesy of 'The Free Radical.']

The execution yesterday of twenty-five year-old Australian drug smuggler Van Nguyen by the Singaporean state has re-opened the debate on capital punishment. At the same time we have the news that an innocent young Texas man was executed in 1993 on the basis of a verdict "that seems to have been built on omissions and lies."

I won't talk about the young Van Nguyen's 'crime' -- I've talked anough here about the 'War on Drugs' -- but my own view on capital punishment, since you asked, is that some crimes certainly do deserve the death penalty.

As Robert Heinlein observed, "Waking a person unnecessarily does not merit capital punishment--for the first offense." Playing ABBA or Westlife at loud volumes also qualifies. Most importantly, murderers morally deserve to die. There is no question but that if you coldly and calculatingly and with pre-meditation snuff out someone else's life and their future, then there's no reason anyone should recognise your right to life -- your right to life is negated by your refusal to recognise that right in others. No question at all. Mercy to the guilty is injustice to the innocent.

The chief problem I have with the death penalty is not a moral one, it's an 'epistemological' one, and a judicial one. My epistemological objection is that error is possible: the method of judicial inquiry is good but not foolproof (even eye witness testimony is notoriously unreliable), and as it's hard to pardon an innocent person after their neck has been snapped or their head cut off, I would prefer to keep 99 evil bastards alive just to ensure that 1 innocent good guy doesn't get topped by mistake. The judicial rider to this is that law and punishment need to be consistent: punishment should fit the crime -- that means that even in cases where guilt is overwhelmingly certain, the punishment should be consistent with the punishment meted out to those whose guilt has been decided on the basis of a lesser certainty.

My conclusion then is that capital punishment for murder is wrong. And capital punishment for drug smuggling is immoral. Those perpetrating that barbarity themselves deserve to die.

[UPDATE: I'm reminded that I participated in a good discussion of capital punishment at SOLO. Here's a link.]

Linked Articles: State Killing an affront to humanity and justice
Did Texas execute an innocent man?


  1. I agree entirely that the issue is epistemological, not moral. Judiciaries ought to be conscientious and exact if they are to apply capital punishment, even in cases of treason. I think as it is practised in the United States, it is indefensible. Since 1973, 122 people in 25 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. Not acceptable.

  2. The number of peaple ringing up talkback supporting the death penalty for drug trafficing is disturbing, I think to an extent this is a backlash against our soft and irrational justice system.
    It would be justified for a semi free country to take military action against a dictaship murdering one of its citezens but im not expecting cruise missiloes to be flying downtown Singapore anytime soon.
    If Singaporian government officials and prison staff thought that that commiting murder would rusult in their own untimely and violent deaths it would give them pause for thought.Having the resolve to play these barbarians at their own game would also have a sobering effect on totalitarians at home which there appears to be a hell of a lot of judging by7 talkback.


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