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The punishers

By Terry Joseph
June 24, 2005

The curious thing about statistics presented in defence of theories seeking to prove the futility of corporal or capital punishment is that they are all constructed on conjecture; saying punishment of convicted criminals in such fashion would have little or no positive effect on our future.

Where that argument collapses completely is against the reality that an executed criminal is in no position to commit another murder, whereas if kept in jail for the rest of his/her natural life, pardoned or released via some legal technicality, society is offered no such guarantee.

Religion has only added to the confusion, some advocating death as punishment for killing, while others see it as State-sponsored violence, both sides of the debate proffering reams of evidence, invariably culled from sometimes skewed interpretations of writings or teachings of spiritual leaders.

Christianity has its own brand of built-in conflict on the issue of capital punishment, given The Bible's vacillation on the subject, saying in one instance "an eye for an eye" and three verses later asking victims of physical abuse to "turn the other cheek," saying too that all vengeance is for the domain of The Lord.

Among Bible verses most often cited in support of the abolitionist position is the tenet described in John (8:3 to 8:11), where Jesus petitions executioners, throwing them into a collective quandary as they gathered to stone an adulteress to death, saying: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."

Interestingly, it is also one of The Bible's most contested accounts, with the anti-execution crusade quoting it to indicate Jesus' opposition to capital punishment, even as scholars declare the report a forgery, since it only appeared in later editions of the Gospel of St John, presumably added by a sneaky creative writer.

But nothing in that quotation suggests Jesus is challenging the right of the accusers to kill the adulteress, in keeping with the template set out in laws God gave to Moses. If indeed, among the executioners, there were many without sin, presumably the stoning would have proceeded without further hindrance; having satisfied the proviso.

Perhaps because Jesus was a victim of a most brutal mode of capital punishment, Christian passion for abolition of such penalties is enhanced but there too the teachings are at least contradictory for, if he were not put to death, the very religion would not exist today.

And if it be argued regardless that the crucifixion was for a greater good, including unassailably noble justification like saving us from eternal hell and damnation, it may be useful to consider that much the same philosophy must have informed what the law of the land currently believes; even if on not quite so grand a scale.

Interestingly, according to Biblical accounts, God Himself imposed the death penalty on individuals guilty of certain transgressions. In Acts (5:1 to 5:11), the story of Ananias and Sapphira indicates that the former was killed on the spot and the latter after she repeated the lie to Peter; all for no greater crime than falsely declaring profits from the sale of a piece of real estate.

Jesus also featured in an episode of corporal punishment, driving the money changers from the temple at Jerusalem, a story whose graphics show Christ with a whip, summarily dishing out a penalty on the bankers, having determined them guilty of corruption and outright gouging of the poor; already forced to purchase a special temple currency if they wished to do any business in the Holy City.

As with any proposition for dealing with criminals, whether it be Justice Herbert Volney's idea of discarding the apparently ineffective birch and returning to the cat-o-nine tails for sex offenders, corporal punishment at large, or execution of convicted murderers, a country's social circumstances should help determine whether they are acceptable elements of the correction system.

Of course, there is no refuting the pro-abolition argument that justice can miscarry, sending an innocent man to the gallows. In the US, during the 20th Century alone, 75 persons were incorrectly convicted of homicides and according to a 1987 Stanford University survey at least 23 of them wrongly executed. The nightmarish possibilities intensify with DNA testing that, over the past 15 years, freed a number of persons, some detained for decades.

Neither compensation nor delayed release is any good to a corpse, such errors ranking for much greater contemplation than spilt milk but something rather final must be done to debar sexual predators and career killers, if we are to protect society from repeat offenders.

But while the lobby to abolish the death penalty continues its crusade, the average law-abiding citizen is being punished, living behind bars, in fear of ruthless murderers, confident the worst that can happen to them is life in prison.

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