A young woman wrote this to me after my last column: ‘I’ve been thinking about this death penalty debate. I don’t know where I stand…’
It recalled for me a time when I too, did not know where to stand and how that changed.
I easily remember traumatic episodes from my childhood that shaped my utter aversion to violence of every kind. I was not yet 10 during this period.
My father was a newspaper photographer, and he often temporarily kept the developed film in a little pile, next to his camera in a closet. Curious from small, I was always rifling through them.
Two black and white photographs taken at different times in the seventies have remained imprinted on me. Both were images of the decomposing bodies of young women. One was Gale Ann Benson, buried alive in 1972. Michael Abdul Malik, hanged for the murder of Joe Skerritt in 1975, was her accused killer.
I know the details because they are available, and there is VS Naipaul’s essay, ‘The Killings in Trinidad’.
The other is of a girl, whose name still conjures the image of her naked body as it lay in a canefield: Shakuntala, raped and strangled. I have no details.
I had never seen anything so horrible and on both occasions I retreated quietly and threw up. My young mind could not imagine that a human body could become something so unrecognisable and degraded.
The impact of those black and white photos is one reason I believe we should do our best to shield children from the sight of these horrors. Technology has made them everyday visitors to our homes, but that is another discussion.
The other aspect is that I very regularly witnessed the sights and sounds of domestic violence. It is why I cannot bear to hear the sounds of anger, even the upraised voices of an argument chill me.
I’ve since had my share of violence of all sorts: at broken-bottle point, at knife-point, at gun-point; but this was where my horror began. I know what it is like to feel so violated that you wish evil on the perpetrators; a natural part of pain and grief is anger.
It was not until I was doing an A-Level Law course that I was able to get a more measured perspective. We were assigned an essay: ‘Should we hang?’ and it sent us to researching different views. Recommended reading included John Stuart Mills, Jeremy Bentham, HLA Hart, and others whose names I cannot remember.
It came down to a legal distillation of why there should be a death penalty. Three reasons really: as a deterrent, and as a punishment or retribution. The major argument against it is that it is immoral.
Where I landed is essentially based on my own perspectives, and I am simply sharing how that evolved. I believe there is something inherently barbaric in any form of violence, and I rebuke the idea of being made complicit in it.
I removed my daughter from a primary school because they insisted on corporal punishment. There are alternative ways of ‘disciplining’ children.
This planet has practised retributive measures of punishment forever. Some of the sadistic methods suggest the punishers were themselves quite deranged. People were burnt and boiled; buried alive or buried with their heads exposed for animals to feast on them; lynched; quartered; thrown to lions; hunted by dogs; crucified; crushed, decapitated; dismembered; drowned; stoned—all in the name of laws.
The death penalty now operates within the realm of hangings, electrocutions and lethal injections. But this attempt to create a more ‘humane’ end does not erase the fact that it is still a cold-blooded sanctioned murder.
Ask yourself about the recent deaths of two men while in police custody. Public outrage over the crime they allegedly committed may have resulted in a sense that grim justice was served.
Was that a version of the death penalty being applied? Or was that a reminder of what went down under Randolph Burroughs? Are we comfortable with that?
It is understandable that people in pain feel that closure will only come through retribution, but it also widens the acts of violence, drawing a society closer to seeing violent resolutions as a best practice.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar did not miss the political opportunity to invoke Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote: Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
It is worth reflection, even as we try to ascertain the efficacy of a death penalty. Does it act as a deterrent? There is hardly any statistical evidence to support that theory.
In the heat of passion, when emotions run high, there is hardly pause to think ‘I go hang for this’; and in the horrible onslaught of hits and casual murders, there is already an understanding that the lifestyle of crime dictates hard and fast living because death is always around the corner.
It has always been a divisive issue, and it will always be. You might stand on principle until you are personally violated—that is why Angela Cropper was so extraordinary.
But I still feel there is something more valuable, more productive, in a society investing in rehabilitation rather than retribution; and in nurturing our children rather than beating the love out of them.