An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind

This post’s title is a quote attributed to M. Gandhi – by the way, a brilliant example of one quotation standing on the shoulders of another.

Dear students, in light of the recent sentencing for the India gang rape case, how timely it is to be dwelling on the topic of capital punishment, no?

There is something deeply troubling about the circumstances surrounding the conviction and sentencing of these four men. Both: (a) decision to fast-track this case and the (b) throngs of incensed people taking to the streets (in an almost carnival-esque atmosphere) calling for the execution of these four men, really raises the question of how far the justice system is swayed by popular opinion/ populist demands.

In other words, was the meting out of the death penalties (as opposed to life sentences) influenced by fears of public protests? This fast-track decision almost reeks of…dare I say it, revenge, more than justice.

Given the sensational coverage of this case, did the judge have any other recourse really? Would any judge have meted anything less than a death penalty?

International organizations and abolitionist countries have spoken out against this sentencing. The Amnesty International, for one, believes (quite rightly, in my opinion) that:

“Sending these four men to the gallows will accomplish nothing except short-term revenge. While the widespread anger over this case is understandable, authorities must avoid using the death penalty as a ‘quick-fix’ solution. There is no evidence that the death penalty is a particular deterrent to crime, and its use will not eradicate violence against women in India.”

This deterrence argument is questionable at best. The deterrence argument is based on several assumptions: (a) that the fear of death would deter would-be criminals from committing a crime; (b) that the fear of swift death is greater than the thought of life imprisonment without parole; (c) that would-be criminals have full knowledge of crimes that would result in the death penalty.

While these assumptions may be valid in many cases, there are some notable cases in history that simply fly in the face of this deterrence argument. One that comes to mind is that of Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh, the Oklahoma city bomber deemed a ‘domestic terrorist’, was executed in June, 2011. Throughout his trial, McVeigh showed no sign of remorse. He believed strongly in his cause, and eventually told his defense lawyers to drop the appeals, saying he would rather die than face life imprisonment. McVeigh indeed seemed to fear life imprisonment more than the death penalty.

An insightful piece from this TIME article about the McVeigh execution:


Killing McVeigh teaches us nothing. It doesn’t teach him a lesson. It doesn’t teach other terrorists a lesson — other than repeating the truth, often confirmed, that if you do something spectacularly horrible, it will make you famous.


Our business, as always, is not, for God’s sake, to make ourselves feel better, as if feeling better were the point of life, but rather, to accept what has happened, and to try to learn something from it.”

Indeed – Justice is not about making ourselves feel better. It isn’t about making the criminal feel better as well.Justice is about meting out retribution, not revenge. Family members of the India rape victim were quoted as saying they were pleased with the sentence. Family members of the Oklahoma bombing victims related that they received some closure. But such public opinions really should not sway our justice system – relations of victims are inevitably distraught and cannot be part of the process of the trial, given their emotional state.

Executing McVeigh has arguably made him a martyr- so has the execution of (how can we forget him) Saddam Hussein. Question: How different would it have been if McVeigh’s death sentence was commuted to life without parole? (Food for thought).

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