In recent years it has become rather unfashionable, but recently I’ve got into revisiting some Orwell, both his novels and biographies about him. The acerbic author and journalist Will Self has recently described Orwell’s work as “Supreme Mediocrity”, for which I believe he makes quite a compelling case. However, It isn’t for the prose that Orwell’s work still captures the imagination, it’s for his ability to represent the most down trodden elements of a society, and it was whilst reading his essay A Hanging that he prompted me to vent my spleen about capital punishment.
In Orwell’s essay A Hanging he recounts the events that led to him observing an execution while serving in the Imperial Police Force. As the condemned man was being walked to the gallows he side steps a puddle to avoid getting his feet wet. To Orwell this was a profound moment and inspired him to write:
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working–bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned–reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone–one mind less, one world less.
Despite what Will Self might think, for me this is an outstanding piece of writing expressing the barbarism and ultimate finality of the act about to take place. Many criticize Orwell’s essay as being overtly biased, for one thing he never goes on to inform the reader of the crime the condemned man was found guilty of perpetrating. I believe that there is a very easy answer to this observation, and that is in Orwell’s opinion the crime committed can never justify capital punishment.
I’ve a very general philosophy in that death is bad, for everyone. That said I am pro-euthanasia and pro-choice, so on reflection, I support the death of those who are in suffering and I support the death of a fetus in its early stages of development, but I absolutely draw the line at the death of those convicted of serious crimes. (Damn I’ve just gone and compromised my own argument).
For me the death penalty is perverse. Societies universally agree that murder is bad. It then seems duplicitous for a society that believes murder to be bad to then murder someone. Imagine if you will, you catch your child fighting, you grab his hand and lead him away. You shout at him that violence never solves anything, and to make sure he learns his lesson you smack him a few times. This should cause cognitive dissonance as your actions directly contradict your message. And so it is with capital punishment.
Surely it is the goal of any custodial institution to reform its detainees to a point beyond the possibility of recidivism. Sentencing someone to death clearly demonstrates that the judge feels rehabilitation is far beyond the powers of the state, which seems ironic as all through the trial the state requires witnesses swear on a book whose central tenants are compassion and forgiveness and in which miracles happen.
So far I have just considered the death sentence in the same context as Orwell in that it is an unjustifiable sentence, too great a power for any state to wieldd. Another far more practical argument is that no legal system is impervious to making mistakes. In the U.S since 1973 150 death row inmates have been exonerated due to the fallibility of the legal system. In the U.K the Review Commission exonerated three people who were executed between 1950 and 1953, it should be kept in mind that the U.K executed on average 17 people a year at this time. Owing to the age of these cases it is impossible for the Review Commission to determine how many more wrongful executions there might have been.
A table showing the 150 people sentenced to death and later exonerated
On Average, each of these 150 people spent 11.2 years in jail before their exoneration. Simply there is no legal system with the infallibility to be able to use the death sentence. Any execution of an innocent person has to be a murder by the state with people being held responsible for such a murder. Some may argue that the 150 exonerated is proof of the legal system working, but this is a ridiculous argument, given the liberty that has been denied to an innocent person as well as the stress of being on death row for all that time.
Another famous author who was present at an execution was Truman Capote, the result of his research into his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. Despite the fact that he knew both Perry Smith and Richard Hickock were guilty of an absolutely gruesome murder, Capote could never see the legitimacy of a just and moral society using the death penalty, and believed that it was only being used to address the fears and anger of the citizens of Kansas. To be honest and realistic can the death penalty ever represent anything other than the states efforts to address the public’s anger and fear.
So is it state sponsored murder or justifiable homicide? (a definition of which you can read below) To be honest I don’t know, all I do know is that the taking of life is wrong, you’ll have to make your up your own mind. In the meantime I’m off to open up my clinic offering cut price abortions to Thai prostitutes using nothing more than a pair of chopsticks, and then I have to euthanize my gran.
Justifiable homicide: n. a killing without evil or criminal intent, for which there can be no blame, such as self-defense toprotect oneself or to protect another, or the shooting by a law enforcement officer in fulfilling his/herduties. This is not to be confused with a crime of passion or claim of diminished capacity whichrefer to defenses aimed at reducing the penalty or degree of crime. (