The death penalty - does it defend or diminish the dignity of man?
Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.....
John Donne, 16th Century English Poet
Can you recall the sense of confusion and discomfort we feel when we see someone else being abused or humiliated? It's caused, perhaps, by the breach of the unspoken contract we have with each other to respect human dignity. In my last blog, I wrote about the pact that our forefathers made following the Second World War to rebuild and respect the dignity of man. Nothing, perhaps, challenges human dignity as much as a judicial decision to kill. Of course, in most states which retain the death penalty it is normally pronounced exactly because of the failure of the accused to respect the sanctity of human life. But does the taking of a life really pay for a life?
The death penalty is a highly emotive issue. And those who claim, as does the EU and its member states, that it diminishes the inalienable and inherent dignity of man tread on very difficult philosophical territory. But the fact that more and more states are abolishing the death penalty supports this claim. Today, only 58 of the 195 states in the world retain the death penalty compared with only 16 states which had outlawed it 1977. Less than half of these actually apply it. In Europe, only Belarus continues this practice.
A case is made by death penalty advocates that it serves the cause of "natural justice" and gives closure for the families of the victims. But not all families consider that their feelings of loss and outrage can be diminished by the execution of the perpetrator. Some worry that violence only begets violence, sucking into its vortex the innocent along with the guilty. Take the case of Ruth Ellis who was hanged in 1955 for the murder of her lover, the last woman to be executed in the UK. She paid with her life for the life she took. But the violence did not end there. Her husband and her son took their own lives, and those involved in the judicial process appeared to be troubled by it.
An American academic, David Garland, has studied the effect of the death penalty on officials such as judges and executioners involved in judicial killing. He believes that it places them in a "cultural contradiction obliging them to behave in ways that are at once lawful and transgressive, trapping them in the uncomfortable space between the cultural norms of liberal humanism and the legal practice of putting offenders to death."
Ellis' execution in 1955
sharpened the debate in the UK
about how judicial killing could be squared with the state's responsibility to
protect and uphold the dignity of its citizens. Fifty thousand people signed a petition seeking
clemency. On the day of her execution, a major newspaper attacked the
sentence, writing that "The one thing that brings stature and dignity
to mankind and raises us above the beasts will have been denied her—pity and
the hope of ultimate redemption."
Mrs Rosemary Thomas, British Ambassador in Belarus