The Death Penalty: Can you want for someone to die?

The Guardian, yesterday, had an essay in its Science Section titled, ‘The Medicalization of Evil’. Written in the shadow of the horrific slaying of twenty six people, little and big, in Connecticut; the author, a medical historian, makes a case for evil existing in humans for its own sake, unexplainable by medical science. She also laments the trend, in the face of violent tragedy, to instantly ascribe a medical or psychiatric basis to the perpetrator’s actions without a detailed inquiry.

In response to her essay, I tagged on a comment. In disagreement. That was yesterday and today, we have the new horror in a never-ending series; this time of a young girl raped and brutally assaulted in Delhi by many men in a public transport vehicle. This young life is now battling to survive on life support in a Delhi hospital after undergoing extensive and complicated surgery on her battered intestines. Yes, intestines. Doctors in the know of the details, have dubbed the crime, psychopathic.

The incident sparked a profound disquiet which found, for a while, an outlet in words. To my mind, this horrific crime is evil; I am not comfortable with its medicalization, and I want nothing short of the harshest possible punishment, that society can deliver, for the criminals. The rising statistics of crime against women, in India, are appalling and the nature of the punishment must ensure that it serves its critical role as a deterrent. Well aware that I am espousing two completely contrarian responses in the span of a few hours; I am forced to revisit the essay and my own comments.

Does our socio-cultural or gender proximity to a crime reflect in our outrage? Do we need to relate to the circumstances of a crime to truly understand its horror? The answer to both these questions is obviously, yes. But, there are objective reasons that transcend these fundamentals. The distinction between a crime and a crime borne out of a psychiatric disability can be based on 1) whether torture was involved 2) the response of the perpetrator in its aftermath and 3) the behavioural history of the criminal.

1. Adam Lanza took his own life, it is said, when he heard the police sirens. A psychiatrist is better qualified to analyse that; but to my lay mind, in that one act of guilt and fear he sought and took his own retribution.

2. Killing and torture are two different beasts. It is harder to bear the news of a death when suffering was involved. Even in Connecticut; the coroner was reported as having said that, if at all anyone suffered, it was brief. Hearing ‘brief and quick’ has the relieving thought response of: merciful. Not on the part of the criminal but to the losing of a life. Taking a life quickly lends it a ‘merciful release’ quality; which the crime of inflicting unspeakable physical and mental harm on an individual, leaving them to face their fate, does not have. Mind-numbing recitations of acid attacks on women resulting in permanent disfigurement and blinding (sometimes), rape of women and children, or of torture that preceded killing have a different impact on us than an instantaneous death. They shake our very faith in humanity. By not wanting to torture and by taking their lives out in a trice; is a gun toting criminal tapping into some base understanding of the quality of mercy? Maybe inadvertently, but nevertheless.

3. By medicalizing a crime; we are also, subliminally restoring our own faith in humanity. We reassure ourselves that man is incapable of such cruelty except in the presence of a mental derangement. On the other hand, torture frightens us. Just like a killing with a gun speaks of some hidden quality of mercy; torture is inherently sadistic and implies a revelling in the suffering of another. If a criminal with no medical antecedent is capable of torture, what of each one of us? If he is no different from the rest of us physically or mentally; is there a tipping point for crime? Are we biologically wired for cruelty? Is there a point at which behaviour alters dangerously and dramatically?

The much reviled Milgram experiment was an exercise in social psychology, conducted during Eichmann’s trial, to assess obedience and the ‘agentic state’. A new variation of this experiment, reported in Scientific American, concluded that morality trumps blind obedience and I quote: “Human moral nature includes a propensity to be empathetic, kind and good to our fellow kin and group members, plus an inclination to be xenophobic, cruel and evil to tribal others. The shock experiments reveal not blind obedience but conflicting moral tendencies that lie deep within”. In a follow-up piece, the author reiterates that the morality of our communities and bonding groups shapes our behaviour and influences our choices. Using behaviour termed ‘identification based followership’, he suggests that a person recruited to inflict suffering on another has a tipping point when his identification-patterns shift. In the face of human suffering there is a tipping point when a recruit starts identifying with the suffering of the study subject more than with the purpose of his research or combat team.

Torture and maiming doesn’t seem to reach this point on the morality scale. Unmoved by the suffering of a victim, the torturer’s obsession with his intent continues unabated. When it is only the process of the law that catches up with these criminals (who are often, at that point, found to be leading a normal life); we are forced to question their capability with guilt and remorse. How does medicalization answer for the conduct of a  normal life ‘after’ such a crime? Rather, socio-cultural or familial acculturations might draw a clearer background picture. And these cannot absolve the crime or give the criminal a reprieve. The harshest punishment of the death penalty might thus serve as the only deterrent for torture. If it is widely publicized all over India that the heinous crime of rape will face the death penalty and will be a non-bailable crime, it might work as an effective deterrent to cruel, repressive, perverse and deranged behaviour. Irrespective of the distinctions between killing and torture; the death penalty must be on the table for captured perpetrators of such crimes. Interestingly, the proof of its deterrent abilities might aid the distinction between torture or crime for its own sake, and crime with a medical background.

As they do in many confounding situations, the immortal words of Thomas Carlyle once again stretch across the centuries to offer their wise counsel. ‘There are depths in  man that go the length of lowest Hell; as there are heights that reach the highest Heaven. For are not both Heaven and Hell made out of him, made by him, everlasting miracle and mystery as he is” – The French Revolution


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