A long post about killing


rope1A few years ago, at an ECOSY event, I remember meeting an Austrian girl wearing a t-shirt carrying the message ‘Human Rights are Universal: No to Death Penalty’ with a picture of Saddam Hussein. This seemed like an odd tactic to try and win that particular argument – one of the world’s most evil dictators is hardly a very good poster-boy for the anti-death penalty campaign.

I was reminded of this when I read about today’s Amnesty report, showing a dramatic rise in the number of executions carried out worldwide in 2008. Over 2,390 people were executed in 25 countries, up from 1,252 in 2007. These shocking figures show that, despite apparent progress over the past decade, the death penalty is still prevalent in many countries, especially in Asia.

In opposing the death penalty, it is easy to base arguments around miscarriages of justice, unfair trials, inadequate legal representation, racism, capriciousness, non-violent offences and the cruelty of various execution methods. Whilst these are all good and valid points, to some extent they miss the point. For to be serious about opposing the death penalty, one must be willing and able to stand firm when the defendant cannot be excused and the process is open and transparent. To do this, the pertinent arguments are the ineffectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent,  the inherent cruelty of cold-blooded killing (including the psychological trauma of waiting on death row) and the brutalising of society that the use of violent punishment represents.

For an example of effective anti-death penalty propaganda, I would strongly recommend  A Short Film About Killing. Krzysztof Kieslowski (director of the Three Colours trilogy amongst many other excellent films) made a series of 10 hour-long films (entitled Dekalog), originally made for Polish TV, based on each of the 10 Commandments. This one was #5, Thou Shalt Not Kill. It tells the story of a young man who senselessly murders a taxi driver and is subsequently hanged. There is no contrived drama, no tense courtroom action and no attempt to excuse the murderer. Instead, the film builds up to a chillingly clinical depiction of the young man’s execution and ends with his lawyer breaking down in tears at the side of a road. In its simplicity, the film was so powerful that it arguably led to the suspension of executions in Poland. The injustice lies in the cruelty of the punishment rather than the legal process that led to it.

Going back to my original anecdote about the girl with the Saddam t-shirt, maybe that message is not so daft after all. It is only when we realise that all life is given by God, with the state having no more right than an individual to extinguish it, that judicial killing might stop once and for all.


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4 Responses to “A long post about killing”

  1. rhodri89 Says:

    Nice post. I’m not convinced either way on the death penalty. I think I would stray towards thinking it was an acceptable practice in some circumstances, however I’m very short of arguments on either side. Thanks for a good round up though.

  2. Captain Jako Says:

    “It is only when we realise that life is given by God”


    Anyways, an additional peripheral anti-death penalty argument that is being raised in the States is the massive costs involved in executions.


    One of the few positive aspects of the credit crunch is that states looking to cut costs are apparently becoming more receptive to the abolition arguments. Frugality could save lives.

    Of course this argument only works in countries with well-developed legal systems…it’s not going to stop executions in places like China.

  3. electionsproduceerections Says:

    Thanks for your kind comment Rhodri. Jako – you know I enjoy winding you up with my Christianity 🙂 You make a good point about cost. The main cause of the huge rise in executions is indeed in non-democratic countries (with the exception of Japan if I remember correctly)

  4. jeatiogTeague Says:

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