Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Is the death penalty really effective?

Thanks to Saddam Hussein, I no longer have any strong inclination towards the death penalty. It comes across as a hellishly sad and downright tasteless business. Perhaps the fact that hangmen around the world are clandestine creatures also points to its apparent indecency.
The mere sight of the noose being tightened around the man’s neck was enough to make me think twice. Make no mistake about it though, he was a nasty piece of work when he was in power. But no human being should be bumped off in that manner.
His calm manner at that very moment also put into question the effectiveness of the death penalty. Faced with certain circumstances, you simply resign to your fate and leave those who mete out punishment to do their worst. The mind must have this inbuilt mechanism to accept fate, however bad. So it also was with King Louis XVI of France just before he had his head chopped off during the French Revolution. The King, on reaching his place of death, reportedly said, without a tinge of fear, “We are arrived, if I mistake not”. Even the gendarmes were astonished and confounded by the tranquil piety of the monarch during what seemed to be his most desperate hour. Before offering his neck to the axe in 1649, King Charles I of England is also said to have delivered a courageous speech. Indeed fa e sule e sule.
Come to think of it, even the moral compass of the Christian faith, Jesus, as biblical accounts tell us, did not as much cause a rumpus when he was being pinned to the cross, execution style. His death was made more harrowing by the fact that it was not immediate. Maybe it is from His experience that we should conclude on the futility of the death penalty.
I gather that for alcoholics who seek to be rescued from the demons of the flammable waters, the first route to recovery is accepting that one indeed has a problem. Surely, a similar principle applies when dealing with life’s encounters, even certain death?
Of course, there are those who will not be quite as brave when facing the noose. We hear that Saddam Hussein’s two proxies, one a brother called Barzan Ibrahim al Tikriti and the other a former judge, were not as brave as their then boss. The Barzan fellow was also a mean customer during his days at the helm of the Iraq intelligence unit Mukhabarat. He reportedly shot one of his guards after the chap had dared to buy duty free alcohol without having first sought permission. Imagine that. Well, history has recorded that Barzan’s head was ripped off from the body when the trap door fell.
The two fellows were probably scared because they felt that they did not deserve such harsh punishment. After all, they were doing someone’s bidding and had little choice of saying no. Who would dare go against a man who had no qualms about killing his own sons-in-law? The other lot who quacked in their boots before being hanged are those who intended just to scare victims, not to kill them. But why hang someone who did not intend to kill in the first place? Intimidation gone wrong. It is the real McCoys who are hard nuts. But then again, why kill someone who does not fear death?
Anyway, Mr Hussein’s hanging reminded me of the visuals I once saw of the killing, by firing squad it was, of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauscescu for murdering 60,000 people. I think his dutiful wife stoically went down with him. It was also a gruesome sight. Regarding Mr Hussein’s experience, it is little wonder that the leader of the “Free World” and his number one supporter, he who resides in the Queen’s Court, have also not been amused by it all.
But it was silly, wasn’t it, for the British Foreign Minister, Ms Margaret Beckett to say that while they are content that the former Iraqi leader has been held to account, her Government does not support the death penalty. Really mindless. Sometimes there is wisdom in silence.
I also think that the Iraqis themselves have lost an opportunity to move forward by killing their ex-leader. Imagine for a second what South Africa would have become if upon taking over in 1994, the black folks had gone on to hang the unrepentant P W Botha. Zimbabweans too, their current woes aside, did well by leaving Mr Smith to lead a lonely life on his farm. These acts of magnanimity greatly aided the coming together of peoples in those countries. Iraqis should have been quick to learn from the South Africans. Now, they walk alone in the valley of the shadow of death and there appears to be no end to the tribally fanned violence.
While families and friends of victims would in most cases want that which was done to their loved ones exacted upon the hoodlums, I think that thugs can be brought to account by some other effective way. There is nothing “retributionist” about it I am starting to think. I would even venture to say that relatives of murderers themselves could not be bothered about what happens to their own because of the shame he or she would have brought on the family. So, for them whether the murderer is hanged or not is neither here nor there.
Maybe punishment for such thugs should be one long stretch of suffering behind prison doors with no visits and other frills, not one of pain inflicted at the gallows. Indeed, as Gandhi proclaimed, an eye for an eye leaves the world blind. Iraq, it seems, is an unedifying example.

Sipho Showa


Read this week's paper