I went out for coffee bright and early on Thursday morning. With nothing to read I reached for my bag and pulled out a recent edition of Harpers magazine I had yet to read. I read through it for about 15 minutes before I happened across an account of the last execution in France in 1981, written by a witness – a magistrate – just hours after the event.
It was a mesmerising read for a number of reasons. There’s a macabre fascination with stories of this type. Whether we approve of them or not its hard to read accounts of this type without being drawn in. In this case it was doubly so because it was so well written.
There’s almost an Orwellian matter of factness in the description of the last moments of this man, and his ultimate demise. It’s clear that the author does not approve of execution, but it is made more powerful by being withheld. Her feelings leak out surreptitiously, and in her close observation of the condemned man. She is a gifted observer and shares with us the telling moments in simple, but lyrical prose. At times she uses the simple metaphor that comes to mind: the condemned man having had two cigarettes asks for a third and is denied; he lingers over a glass of brandy while the guards wait impatiently like, she says, a child delaying the moment they must go to bed.
My mind is long made up, I’m against execution. It’s articles like this which confirm the belief that there is ultimately something degrading when the state chooses to execute an individual. Regardless of the crime they have committed, no matter how depraved they are, there remains something human within them.
Part of the problem these days, and probably forever, is that we are so remote from the things we do, or which are done on our behalf. We see that with the treatment of refugees who land here in Australia. They’re a headline, a government policy, and a few angry letters, but unfortunately most of us turn over and go back to sleep because it’s not entirely real to us. They are other people, an abstraction because we cannot look or their eyes or hear their cries. They’re statistics, not people.
Likewise with executions. Though much of the world has moved on from executions, it still happens in many parts of it. Just last week there was the shocking story of an execution gone wrong in one of the American states. That’s an exception though. I imagine in places where this happens it is just another event. A headline in the mornings newspaper we read before turning to the sports pages: he got his just desserts.
If you’re not there to witness the reality of that headline it’s just something that happened. It’s only when reading accounts like the one above that we are made to recall the grimy truth of it: the fear, the bureaucratic inevitability, even the common banality of a scene where a man is about to have his life ended. We recognise the gestures, the body language, we remember our own feelings mirrored in what we read. We wonder what we would feel if we were there to witness such an event; worse still, if it is our life about to end. The desperate attempt to eke out a few extra moments becomes plaintively real to us.
I understand the will for vengeance, but think state authorised execution is immoral. Put aside the fact that many innocent people have been convicted and executed for crimes they never committed. There’s a strong argument against execution right there. The more fundamental reason is that it is not our place to do God’s work (and that coming from an atheist. As humans it’s not our place to deny another’s humanity, no matter how doubtful that humanity is. Ours to judge the crime, not the criminal.
Our criminal justice system is there to respond to crimes committed. It apprehends, it judges, and ultimately it incarcerates. In effect it acts to take violent or anti-social members of our society off our streets. It acts in the interests and safety of the law-abiding majority.
There is certainly an element of punishment in that. Punishment for crimes committed, and a deterrent against others doing the same. It’s passive though – we deprive someone of their liberty, we take them to one side. In Australian society at least we don’t act to deprive them of their life.
That seems to me the key distinction. In breaking the law the criminal has acted. He has disrupted the status quo by stepping aside from the societal conventions that bind us. We acknowledge that in law and in accord with those same conventions seek to contain him passively within four walls, and behind bars. It’s when we choose to go beyond that, when we choose to execute the perpetrator, that we go from being passive to active. In my mind it’s when we act that we cross a civilising norm – just as the criminal has done in the first place. To execute another is to commit a crime in the name of the state.
In saying all of this I acknowledge the individual need for retribution. I understand utterly a father, a son, a wife or mother seeking vengeance against the person who have taken from them what they love most. If it was me I too would want to get my hands on them.
There’s a difference between the state and the individual though, and that’s why we have laws, and how cultural and societal mores have developed. We might understand the anger of the individual, but of greater importance is the health of the state – and we know that. Much as it is instinctive we cannot condone crimes of revenge, even when they are authorised by the state. There is no civilisation without just law.