Not long before I wrote this, something happened in New South Wales that sent shock-waves through Australia: a six-year-old boy was so badly beaten by the de-facto husband of his mother that he sustained brain-damage and died shortly afterwards. When the mother and her lover realized what they had done, they concocted a story that the child had been set-upon by a gang of teenagers while on the way to the shops with his elder brother; they even coached the elder brother to corroborate this lie. But their deception was soon discovered and they were arrested and charged with murder. Not surprisingly, this crime provoked outrage in their community, and indeed all over the country.

We hear of old people being bashed and murdered for their meager savings, of old ladies being raped and killed; violent crimes against the very young and the very old—those least able to defend themselves—are increasing, and terror spreading.

The cry for the execution of people who commit such crimes grows louder day-by-day, and it is hard to imagine how the politicians will continue to ignore it much longer; any polly who makes it a point in his next election-campaign is almost sure to get lots of support.

With horrific crimes like this not infrequent now, and the judicial and law-enforcement systems obviously unable to cope, more and more people are calling for the reintroduction of the death-penalty. In this article, I would like to look at the controversial issue of capital-punishment.

It is only within this century that most Western countries have abolished the death-sentence, but it is still very much in force in the majority of other countries for crimes such as murder, drug-smuggling, treason, espionage, kidnapping and—in some countries—adultery, rape and prostitution. In countries where law has been suspended by dictators, people lose their lives for much lesser crimes, or merely on the whim of those in power.

Capital-punishment has been meted out for as long as people have gathered together in organized groups, when it became clear that certain laws and standards were necessary for the sake of cohesion and social harmony; and as communities became more organized and occasion required it, more laws were enacted and rulers and judges appointed, with others being assigned the task of enforcing the laws, and of bringing to justice those who broke them.

Serial-killings, shoot-out massacres, armed-robbery, pack-rape, sex-crimes, child-abuse, torture, burglary, township-violence, aerial-bombardment, smart-bombs, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons: the list goes on and on, and paints a very grim picture of the human race. With our amazing science, technology and widespread higher-education, we are not, on the whole, as civilized as we like to think, for a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the chain seems to be getting weaker and weaker and in imminent danger of snapping; the forces of law-and-order seem unable to contain or curb the rising tide of crime and violence, and many people fear that we are on the edge of another age of barbarism like that which engulfed Europe for almost a thousand years after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, and which we appropriately refer to as The Dark Ages. Moreover, the forces of law-and-order have lost the respect and support of vast numbers of people and become tarnished by the exposé of their faults and excesses. The world’s richest and most-powerful country, the USA, is no longer ‘the land of the free’ but of the fearful, where it is unwise to go alone on the street at night—or even in the daytime in some cities! It is still ‘the home of the brave’, however, because people have to be brave to go on living there! The Western social system quite clearly seems to be disintegrating.

The death-penalty has been meted out in many ways over the ages, from burning, drowning, strangulation, hanging, poisoning, decapitation, to shooting, gassing, electrocution, lethal-injection, and so on. Man has lavished all his ingenuity on devising and using instruments of torture; the fiendishness of them staggers the imagination! Legalized mass-murder is called War, and the most bloody conflict ever—the Second World War—claimed 50 million lives, and still we have not learned!

For many centuries until this one, the moral and legal codes of most Western countries were based on the Judaeo-Christian Bible, and the savage "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" justice propounded therein. Thus, sentencing of criminals tended to be vengeful and punitive rather than educative and corrective. But even today we have not advanced so far along the path of reform; many prisons remain universities of crime, with drugs readily available, where inmates are brutalized and often become worse than they were before, and come out with a huge grudge against the society that took away their freedom and incarcerated them.

People who oppose capital-punishment call it barbaric and inhumane, and reduces those who support and advocate it to the level of those they condemn. Moreover, they say that innocent people are sometimes executed on wrongful charges and false evidence, and that fresh evidence exonerating the executed person and exposing the fatal mistake sometimes turns up later, but too late, of course, to bring the innocent person back to life. Also, they maintain that life is sacred, and no-one can create it, so no-one has the right to take it away. But this is something that those who commit premeditated murder should consider before taking the lives of others, is it not?

If only we were taught in school from childhood and helped to understand that our life-span, at most, is brief, and to be honest and fearless about what we do, so that when and if confronted about our misdemeanors, we would not deny them and lie about them, even going so far as to swear on books regarded as sacred that we didn’t do them. By denying the wrong we have done, we become not only miscreants but also liars and cowards; we are brave enough to do wrong, but not brave enough to admit it. This is cowardly, and certainly nothing to admire or be proud of.

Are we still morally and spiritually children that we can claim credit for our good actions but deny responsibility for our bad actions or blame them on temptation or mitigating circumstances? No-one is perfect and error-free, and to pretend to be is just another error. We are human, and so have the limitations of our unenlightened state, though it is as humans that we may achieve enlightenment, and should indeed strive to do so. It arises through understanding ourselves just as we are, rather than as we would like to be. It means accepting our faults and failings without trying to gloss over them and being honest about our mistakes. We all tell lies at times, for example, not necessarily to deliberately deceive, but simply because it is often hard not to, and anyone who claims that he never tells lies is probably lying right there and then!

We could be taught and shown that it is human to make mistakes and sometimes give way to our negative inclinations, but that it is better and more manly to admit them, honestly and fearlessly and to accept the consequences thereof, than to cravenly deny that we did them, and seek to escape the results. "Yes, I did it", we might say, "I regret it now, but I did it, and am ready to accept the consequences". If we could bring ourselves or be brought to this degree of maturity, we would live much more responsibly and be more in control of ourselves. So, once again, we are led back to education: the education-system is to blame for most of our ills, personal as well as social. It aims only to make us academically successful and denies us a moral basis for living; thus, we may be highly qualified in a particular area, but dishonest, ruthless and unscrupulous in our dealings with others, and our education—or rather miseducation—is largely to blame for this, for providing us with knowledge, but not showing us that it is to be used for the benefit of the community we live in, instead of against it and for self-aggrandizement.

Must we be saints to be honest? Is honesty beyond the average person? In the Buddhist scriptures it is stated that a Sotapanna ("Stream-Enterer")—that is, someone who has reached the first stage of enlightenment or sainthood—though still capable of committing bad or unwholesome actions, cannot and will not knowingly conceal them or pretend that he didn’t do them, but will honestly and fearlessly admit them—not in an exhibitionist manner, of course, but as things to be given up. And if a person of such attainment can still make errors and do things wrong, we may derive some consolation and feel that there is still hope for us.

But if we cannot live like this completely, it is possible, I am convinced, to create a mental climate educationally, wherein we would be less afraid and more willing to ‘own up’ to our misdeeds; we could be encouraged to be honest and not to be dishonest, instead of the other way around; by being realistic about ourselves as humans, we would not impose impossible standards on ourselves and others, and this, far from increasing licentiousness, would, with proper guidance, inspire and give rise to a greater sense of responsibility and maturity. A lesson in this might be learned from the attitude shown in the Netherlands towards the use of ‘soft’ drugs like hashish and marijuana: while not actually legal, the authorities and general public turn a blind eye to it, and such drugs are openly sold and smoked in many coffee-houses. This takes it off the black-market and removes the morbid fascination of the ‘forbidden-fruit’ aspect of it, with the result that the Netherlands now has the smallest proportion of people who use hash and marijuana, and the lowest crime-rate attached thereto, of any country in the Western world. Compare this with Australia, where drug-use is on the increase, and possession of hash and ‘mary-jane’ is a punishable crime, and hidden plantations of ‘grass’ valued at millions are frequently discovered and destroyed. But how does such stuff—a weed—come to be so preposterously valued?? To me, it is neither expensive nor cheap, but simply worthless, as it is something I don’t need or want. The value is totally artificially!

Years ago, when I worked in the Manila City Jail, I was appalled to see young children living there with their parents. I remember in particular one little boy of about four (he would now be about 22, if he is still alive), because some of the inmates had trained him to draw his forefinger across his throat—to signify throat-cutting—whenever someone asked him the question: "What are you in for?" What an education!

From my work in that jail, I learned a number of lessons, among them being not to think of people as bad just because they had done bad things. When I first went there, I used to recoil inwardly when, upon asking people what they were in for, they said "Murder". But upon reflection, I came to see that it is not difficult to kill someone—we are all capable of it; all we have to do is to become angry, ‘lose our minds’ for a moment, pick up something lying nearby, like a knife, bottle or axe, and hit someone with it, and that person could easily die. It would then be too late to say: "Oh, I’m sorry! Don’t die! I didn’t mean it! Please don’t die!"

I have strayed a bit, I know, from my discussion of capital punishment (maybe some people will say I’ve been beating around the bush), but I must please myself with my writing, too, otherwise I could never sit down to write, and my meanderings herein have been both interesting (to me) and enabled me to touch on various other points and weave them into a pattern. But let us get back to the main topic, and look at the arguments for the reintroduction of the death-penalty for certain serious and cold-blooded crimes.

Supporters of capital-punishment maintain that the law favors the criminals over their victims, who pay twice: once by suffering at the hands of the criminals, and again through their taxes being used to pay for the incarceration of the perpetrators of the crimes. They hold that the punishment should be made to fit the crime, and that if the punishment for certain illegal activities is the death-sentence, and if people insist on committing crimes in full awareness of what they are doing and the risks involved (drug-smuggling, for example, which is done for the sake of potentially-huge profits but which ruins the lives of people who become addicted), they cannot reasonably complain if they are caught and punished. They know the law; they know the risks. They would rejoice if they succeeded in their venture; they shouldn’t protest if they fail and are caught, but should accept it stoically and honestly, for it is of their own making, and no-one else’s. And whoever believed the naïve tale told by the two young British girls who were caught attempting to smuggle heroin out of Thailand a few years ago? They claimed that they had met someone in a Bangkok nightclub—a complete stranger!—who had asked them to carry something out of Thailand for him. Now, everyone who visits countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore—and most other countries nowadays—is warned not to carry anything for anyone that they are not absolutely sure of, and upon leaving the country, at the airport, people are questioned about this, and whether or not they have packed their own bags. A large quantity of heroin—more than 20 kgs, if my memory serves me correctly—was found in the girls’ baggage at the airport, concealed in containers of talcum-powder, of all things. They were found guilty of smuggling, and given sentences of 24 and 18 years in the notorious ‘Bangkok Hilton’ jail, and were lucky, some think, not to be given the death-sentence. But, because of behind-the-scenes intergovernmental negotiations, they were recently freed on an amnesty of the King of Thailand, and the press-people turned out in swarms to meet them upon their return to London. From being treated as criminals, they had become celebrities, and there was talk of half-a-million pounds sterling or more for their story! Who says that crime doesn’t pay?

Freedom is a wonderful thing that we can have too much of and which many people are obviously not ready for. Without laws to live by, and without enforcement of those laws, society would quickly sink into a state of anarchy and chaos. We are already in a mess and getting worse, and do not have the luxury of time needed to educate people and get them to understand the value of life. If the death-penalty is reintroduced, and if it is proved beyond reasonable doubt that people are guilty of crimes carrying the death-sentence—and in many cases it is clear—the sentence should be carried out forthwith, rather than prolonging the suffering of the condemned person by keeping him on death-row for years. If the authorities waver and lose their nerve and show unwillingness to carry through the laws they have enacted, they had better not make them in the first place, or they will not be taken seriously.

And what about compassion?, some people will ask. Compassion is something that the perpetrators of crime should think about before victimizing others, and not after they have been caught and found guilty.

Jesus is reported to have said: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone", meaning that no-one is innocent and in a position to blame others. Thinking to have this applied to himself during his trial, a man in America, upon being convicted for terrorizing his former employer, told the judge that at 54 he was too old to be sent to jail, and asked for a public stoning instead. His one condition was that only those without sin should be allowed to throw the stones. The judge sentenced him to 5 years in jail. (Culled from THE WORLD ALMANAC AND BOOK OF FACTS).

To take a rather philosophical view of it all: We are all under sentence of death, for life is a terminal disease, and as Bob Dylan sang: "He not busy being born is busy dying". To ponder on this might help us understand the importance of living responsibly. I said above that we are all capable of killing, and of many other things, but most of us restrain ourselves, and it is herein that our morality lies: by not doing things that we may sometimes feel inclined to do, or by doing other things that we might not like to do. It is important to know why we restrain ourselves so. Is it because we fear retribution or being found out? Is it because we hope for some reward for not doing what we might otherwise do? Is it because we want recognition and praise from others? Or is it because we look on others as ourselves and identify with them, so that we would try not to inflict upon them what we ourselves do not like? Since most of us have not reached the stage of motiveless morality yet, it is useful to examine our motives for our doings and not-doings.

And as for judging others, how can we not do that? We all have standards for many things, and measure people and things by these standards. To say that someone or something is ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’, ‘nice’, ‘nasty’, ‘greedy’, ‘fat’, ‘thin’, ‘big’, ‘small’, ‘short’, ‘tall’, ‘wise’, ‘ignorant’, ‘intelligent’, ‘stupid’, etc., is to pass a judgment or express an opinion. Comparisons like ‘cheap’, ‘expensive’, ‘shoddy’, ‘good value’, ‘economical’, etc.—which we make when we go shopping—are also judgments, as are opinions of the weather: "Nice day, isn’t it?", "Terrible weather today", etc. And when we say that someone is polite or ill-mannered what is it but a judgment? Concepts of good and bad, justice, honesty, fair-play, brutality, callousness, indifference, generosity, stinginess, and so on, are all judgments, are they not? However can we live without judging and assessing? While cooking we must judge; while driving we must judge; while working we must judge and discriminate. Judgment forms a vital part of our lives, and we would not be able to function without it. So, are not people talking nonsense when they say we shouldn’t judge? Perhaps they are unclear about the difference between judging and prejudice, which is unwise judgment, or judgment based upon insufficient evidence or without being in full possession of the facts. Judgment based upon the egoistic feeling of superiority, of feeling better than others, is also wrong.

Footnote: Some years ago, I wrote the following letter to a newspaper in Malaysia; it was published, and received some favorable comments:

"In medieval Europe, criminals who were caught were placed in the stocks in the marketplace in full view of the public. A sign stating their offence would be displayed so that people would know what they had done and treat them accordingly, with abuse, scorn, ridicule—and often with over-ripe fruit and rotten eggs.

"Such treatment surely had a great psychological effect on the offenders—and on the bystanders—for who enjoys being publicly humiliated and embarrassed? Many offenders, one feels, would prefer a thrashing with a cane than to be put on display in public.

"Stocks can be easily and cheaply erected, with a roof to protect the offender from the sun and rain. An officer of the law could be stationed nearby to prevent undue violence on the part of the public to the offender, who would be made to stand or sit there and review the folly of his misdeeds and perhaps resolve not to repeat his mistakes.

"Is this kind of psychological deterrent against crime not worth a try? It might have a great effect on some would-be law-breakers (and we are all potential law-breakers in the sense that we have the capacity, and sometimes the inclination, to break the law). With crime on the increase, all preventative measures should be considered".

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