Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Picture of the Week

It's been a big week for state-sanctioned murder. Australian citizen Nguyen Tuong Van was hanged this week. The argument that he knew the risk of trafficking drugs through Singapore is a non-sequiter. Making him swing was a massively disproportionate and manifestly unjust action regardless of any assumption of risk. John will probably bridle at the unnecessary "island appendege" statement, but this piece is a good polemic:
From the day of his arrest, Nguyen's fate was all but sealed. By a law that accused him of trafficking into Singapore when he had not entered the country, had no intention of entering the country and was plucked from an airport transit lounge on his way to Australia. By courts not interested in contradictory evidence and procedural abuses by police. By a government that mandates death for anyone caught with more than a relatively trivial 15 grams of heroin and refuses to let judges consider mitigating evidence. And by a phoney clemency process bereft of compassion.

Over in the most prolifically murderous of western democracies, Robin Lovitt avoided becoming the 1000 person killed since the punishment was re-allowed by the US supreme court in 1976. Interestingly, his escape route was his sentence being commuted to life in prison by Mark Warner, the Democratic governor of Virginia who is strongly tipped to run for the presidential nomination in in 2008. Politically this might be seen as a risky move by him, but given the brutality of the punishment and especially given the uncertainties in the case it was definately the principled thing to do.

And still there was more. Another criminal, in North Carolina, instead received the very dubious distinction of being number 1000. And finally, Governor Schwartzenegger is coming under increasing pressure to commute the sentence of one of the the country's highest profile death row inmates, who at one stage looked like he was going to be #1000.

Anyway, I think I've made my opinion pretty clear here. I think the death penalty is very wrong. I don't think the retributive argument holds any weight. We can never mete out the true horror of a criminal's crime upon him or her - eye for an eye is literally impossible. We can't let the desires of crime victim's survivors determine our punishment because that arbitrary standard would require us to exact far worse than death in many circumstances. The deterrance argument is statistically unsound but even if it were true, it is a crass utilitarian argument whose logic we understandably do not take to its logical conclusion. Doing medical experiments on death row inmates would likely save lives, as would keeping them alive and harvesting them for organs and their skin/blood as it replenishes. Publicly torturing them would provide more of a deterrent effect. Neither arguments provide a sound moral basis for the death penalty, there is no meaningful distinction between killing a person and doing these things to them, no reason to draw the line just at and no further than mere killing.

And capital punishment is categorically different from imprisonment. The death penalty is the only instance where the state intentionally murders a person. It kills in other instances, but it is never pre-meditated, intentional, planned and deliberate. It makes it much more difficult for the state to maintain a moral standard of the preservation of life if it not only sanctions but carries out the intentional murder of a conscious citizen. Murder is not the hallmark of a humane justice system.


  • Actually I don't have a problem with the 'island appendage' comment, because it's true. Singapore was a part of Malaysia at independence.

    With all the talk about the island state's capitalist success story, it might be recalled that at the time no one in Singapore considered separation good news. Lee Kuan Yew himself cried the day they were booted out of the federation. Or at least pretended to.

    By Blogger John Lee, at 12:59 AM  

  • Did you read the article, John? I thought perhaps it contained some of the sort of condescension for the country, including specifically calling it an island appendage and complaining about how the courts were pale comparisons to the English ones thy were based on, that you got annoyed at. If that wasn't there then I was obviously being overly sensitive to your possible sensitivity :)

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 4:28 PM  

  • I'd read the article before your post. The 'island appendage' comment didn't strike me as derogatory in intent, though it can be read that way. The comments about the court system were more ambiguous (the use of the word 'ape' was especially unfortunate), but on balance I thought them an acceptable way of raising issues about that system's independence; after all, the author had been covering Nguyen's trial. There's been far more unbalanced comment in the mainstream media, like this piece in the SMH a few weeks ago.

    What annoys me are comments that are racist/derogatory or stereotype the whole population (generally both): 'shitehole rogue Chinese port city', 'half-arsed backward pack of dimwits', 'fascist capitalist automatons' etc. For choice samples, check out this thread at Larvatus Prodeo and this one on Nguyen's campaign blog.

    You'd think people who oppose the death penalty based on human dignity would see the irony in writing off a whole country because of one execution. But then this brand of ideologue never sees the whole picture. That's why they demand we sever all ties with Singapore (our 8th largest trading partner, key SE Asian ally etc), and tar fellow Australians who support the death penalty as ignorant bogans. It's this sort of behaviour from the Left that gets Howard reelected every four years.

    By Blogger John Lee, at 12:23 AM  

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