Death penalty for Ronell Wilson is unfortunate. In fact, death penalty itself is an unfortunate decree. Majority of the world population do not want such a punishment. A huge majority of capital punishment cases have been proved to be unsuccessful after being taken up. And again in the majority of capital punishment cases, entirely innocent people have been framed, and discharged with all honor.
Yet, since New York—that last bastion of liberal America—has decided death sentence for Wilson, the underlying spasms defining a gap between New York and the New Yorkers have come to the fore. Since reinstatement of death penalty in 1995, New Yorkers have spent $170 million of their tax money unwillingly, and perhaps unknowingly, to the cause of finding a scapegoat.
And Wilson, it seems was worth that money.
I will not enter into the moralist debates here. Certainly not to uphold the human lives as more valuable than any other animal’s in order to condemn death penalty. Indeed, to claim that human life is, lets say, more precious than that of animals, would be only to condone the vast parallel that can be drawn regarding the relative life value of an African-American (black) as opposed to an European-American (white) in the Unites States.
Neither will I advance the much discussed theory of how United States happens to be the only developed country in the world where death penalty still exists. Indeed, to claim that the European nations that have banned death penalty are civilized, would be to acknowledge deliberate omission of facts related to history of genocides caused by, perpetrated through, and resulted due to those very powers.
But amidst these superficial larger moral rationale that are usually hyped against each other in the public space (of human life or democracy model), the issue that should not go amiss is the specificity of the cases involved. Since death penalty is not awarded to a society, but to an individual (as opposed to a system of governance like electoral democracy or communism), it is imperative for us to be able to deconstruct the power equations involved in death penalty (racism, political decisions etc), but without neglecting the individual cases under observation.
To make a sweeping claim such as death penalty must be banned everywhere (although basing on statistics of their success, that’s a valid claim) would be to get entrapped inside the ethical dilemmas (are we to then passively watch imperialist wars or actually declare the war against the imperialists). Just as not all wars are indeed to be banned, banning of death penalty need not be a necessary discourse of our times.
In my personal opinion (shaped by my desire to uphold an ideal), wars and death penalties should be gotten rid of. However, considering this is an idealistic assumption, such an opinion looks not at the reality, but at possibility alone. In matters that affect our superconscious (to borrow from Freud), it is desirable that we go beyond the possibilities. And to embrace segments of reality, however painful that may be, however hard it may further our dissonance.
If we do not need to take a stand on death penalty as yet, are we then to bear with the penalties now? And to that, thankfully there is a heartening answer. The short answer is “no”.
Death penalty is usually handed over as a solution to a problem. Almost in all the cases, it is assumed that a killer is to be put to rest through lethal injection/gunshot/electric chair/hanging. It is this method of solution that needs to be analyzed. What problem is exactly being dealt with here? Crime?
We all know that society prepares the crime and the criminal commits it. In other words, crime is a social phenomenon and not a personal one. As Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” reminds us at the end of the play, all of us are responsible for the death of the working class girl. Or at least that’s how the conscience posing as the inspector reminds the business family under self-denial. Need we resort to eliminating the “criminal” or address the grounds that scientifically gives birth to what we call crime?
The jurors in death penalty cases, notwithstanding their decisions, often fail to acknowledge a need to overhaul the societal system to contain the crime. For all the glorious trumpets of capitalism, the capitalist society has “produced” the largest number of undertrials in the world history. In fact, this should not come as a surprise, considering that capitalism thrives on inequality; it shines on the premise that only a few can consolidate.
When only a few monopolists consolidate the best of earthly resources, the rest of us have two ways to deal with this reality. One, which is usually the most preferred path: that is, we decide to serve the interests of the monopolists so that we can be benefited by the trickles of ill-gotten fortune. To that extent, we serve them well. The better we serve the capitalists, the better lives we live. Better, meaning hassle-free, crime-free, interference-free. We do our “own things”, which translates into: ‘we serve our bosses exactly the way we are told to’. Huge majority of human beings either willfully, or coaxed into, or even grudgingly carry out such a life. We learn to obey the commands, act in the directed manner, read the book we are told, watch the televisions they permit, even play the games, use computers, share music –in an ‘order’ly fashion.
Some of these, just as the laws of probability goes, are actually good. For example, standing in a line to buy grocery is a good thing to do, because it allows us to understand priorities. In fact, it also allows for those who need special attention to go before us. Not only because there is a rule, but because we as human beings share an understanding that some of us need more than the rest of us. Hence its actually good if we obey the rule that says, women, children and people with special needs get priority on this counter and so forth.
But most of the rules are debatable. In fact, quite debatable. Who gets to own a gun? Who deserves the most luxurious cars? Who needs to live in palatial houses? Who decides on our behalf to go on a war? Who decides whose life is more precious?
Here is where the rest of us come into picture. A minority (and some would say, fortunately so) among us will at times refuse to serve. We will protest against the capitalists. We will disobey some laws (remember we may still agree to obey the law that has affirmative benefits for disadvantaged groups).
So then, are all lawbreakers coming from the disadvantaged section of society? Hardly so. When people start disobeying some laws that is because they fall into one of the two categories below:
a. When we are highly privileged not to obey. That is, when we are members of the economically elite section of society. In a way, we make the laws. So we believe we can break it whenever we want. Take for example, when this minority among us declares war on innocent people of Middle East. That’s the group. Or the feudal elements of democratic powers whose nepotism runs high among such political configurations. This group bungles in all ways possible to reinforce its sway. It does financial corruption of highest disorder. It awards itself tax benefits. It establishes factories that damages and kills millions of people over the years, all the while earning itself unaccounted wealth. Since it really does not “need” to kill anyone (although they kill each other in family feuds, extramarital affairs and property disputes), this group merely directs the killings indirectly. Worse, it projects its own private wealth—the killer of society—as its shield, a very acceptable, nay, desirable shield. It bathes itself on the glory of its power, which it calls legitimate.
b. The second category of minorities is from the disadvantaged group. This class of people has refused to emulate its fellow members, majority of whom are those have-nots that have chosen to work for the privileged, so as to earn some leftovers. At times such refusal is organized, contemplated over and borne out of knowledge. But at most times, refusal to obey the masters and their laws, are borne out of ignorance, and disorganized irresponsible actions. Irrespective of the method, the action is usually one of dissent. The dissent, when organized, is directed towards positive furtherance of societal welfare. In this case, they form a band of radicals to envisage revolutionary goals of majority emancipation. And when not quite organized, these dissenters often end up emulating the first category (the rich filthy legitimate elites). The idea is to climb the ladder. But the reality is, more often than not (some get away: those rags-to-riches business profiles will vouch), they get entrapped.
Once trapped, the have-not is usually left at the mercy of the same law of the land against which it had dissented. This is the law of the land that awards its owners a huge leverage. Indeed it builds up courtrooms, a thick law book, and a plethora of liars who study the law just so they can play around with the manipulative words.
Yes, lawyers do not manipulate the law: the words are manipulative on purpose. The words are left in vagueness because only then they can be interpreted differently by the lawmakers to suit their interests. When it would come to displacement of poor people from their lands, the law can be twisted to suit its masters. And again, when the poor rise up to commit a small theft at a rich landgrabber’s mansion, the same law can award this ‘criminal’ a life sentence, only after years of undertrial experience inside inhuman cells the masters have created called prisons.
Little wonder, almost all undertrials and prisoners in basic jails hail from the second category. And again, little wonder then, that almost all the masters of the land that make the laws (congressmen, senators, parliament members, and their corporate partners) hail from the first category.
Laws of the lands where capitalism prevails are designed largely to benefit the affluent and influential. They are not meant to award death penalty to industry giants who encroach African lands and pollute the poor lives through poisonous gas that cripple the generations there. Most people on earth still die prematurely only because of environmental pollution. Worse than death is the lives they lead in want, in hunger, in deprivation of utilization of their own lands that have been grabbed and colonized and exploited by the elites. Most people on earth till date are without access to safe drinking water, because the corporate elites with mutual help of their lawmakers make sure that the distribution of water resources—those natural resources that are supposed to be belonging to the whole of human race, and if not so, then none of us should be having anything to do with each other, let alone decreeing death penalties—is made in a way to support factories and plants and bank balance, not the poor peoples’ lives. Every day we are bombarded with fact finding missions that discover how every private corporate entity, irrespective of their brand names, and their funded political parties, irrespective of their fame, have been trampling down peoples’ lives and aspirations under the capitalist system. Indeed, individual murder of a person may or may not carry with it an evil intent of larger consequence. But the manner in which instruments of capitalism continue to ruin peoples’ prospects to live a life of dignity (because dying is better than slaving), it is high time that we revisited the crucial questions.
Who commits the crimes? Is it the one who commits it, or the one who creates the condition?
Its not death penalty per se which is problematic. It is who receives it, that should be a bother.
The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050307/hatchmiller