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On The Ethics Of The Death Penalty (TW?)

Illustration for article titled On The Ethics Of The Death Penalty (TW?)

The death penalty is still on the books in Trinidad and Tobago. The last person to be executed was Dole Chadee in 1999; he was a drug lord and convicted murderer. He was executed on my 9th birthday. I always felt badly about that. But I never felt badly about his death. He was by all accounts a terrible criminal who had contributed to the decline of local society.


I've always been pro-death penalty. In my mind, if you take a life, you forfeit your claim on your own. Obviously, individual circumstances such as self defense or defense of others played a role in the decision to execute, but for me, it always came down the fact that I believed certain crimes were so heinous that there was nothing left to do with the perpetrator than scourge the world of their presence. The Jeffery Dahmers, Luis Garavitos and Charles Ray Hatchers of the world didn't deserve a chance at redemption in my mind. Not after the brutal way in which they had violated the human spirit.

But I think my mind is changing, and for possibly a very simple reason.

The first time I really started to challenge my position on the issue was when in a discussion of the topic here on GT, someone replied to me and said "the state shouldn't have the right to kill its citizens." I realized that I agreed, and couldn't really argue with that assertion.


Then I thought about how the decision to seek the death penalty is made. More often than not, it's a political ploy. A particular crime shocks the public conscience, and the metaphorical mob is formed. But then I realized; who really decides when a crime reaches the level of "violation of the human spirit?" It's such a neat way to say that a crime was truly horrible, but what does that expression really even mean? It's so broad and open that it could mean anything from murder, to allowing people to live in poverty. In essence, it doesn't mean much of anything.

Now I'm an avid fan of crime dramas, so the death penalty question comes up often, and it's always wrapped up in ethical questions. But in the last few months I've realized something specific that I hadn't before: the desire to see someone die for a crime is more often than not, rooted in vengeance, not justice. If we accept that there are no clear guidelines for which murders are "most heinous" then how to make distinctions between murderers who do and don't deserve to die?


Is the man who murders one woman by stabbing her 90 times and ripping out her organs more deserving of death than the man who shoots 100 people cleanly in the head with a single bullet? Where are the lines? Who decides which victims' lives were so precious that their death warrants more death in turn?

And then we consider the survivors of those victims. Everyone who has lost a loved one to murder feels justified in believing that the perpetrator deserves to die. After all, they took their loved one away forever, and no amount of remorse or rehabilitation that will change that for them. So in order to be fair, do we then execute anyone, anywhere who ever ends a life?


When I think it about it now, I go back to that original commenter who said to me that a state shouldn't have the right to kill its citizens. I'm beginning to think that since there is no truly ethical or fair way to decide who lives and who dies for their crimes, and until that can happen, it's immoral to execute anyone at all. After all, is there a scale of horribleness of murder? Is there a threshold after which we decide that a particular person's murder is more significantly horrible that another's? How would we ever go about drawing those lines?

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