Death Penalty – an essay

 I was never totally against death penalty.  There could be individuals who are so detrimental to the human society that they could be done away with, that was my view.  For example, a person like Kasab whom we saw on our TV screens shooting away gladly like a demented person is indeed a serious threat to humanity.  What leniency should he expect from the humanity which he was trying to exterminate mindlessly?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the great Romantic poet, told us the story of the Ancient Mariner who shot down an albatross that had been the sailors’ only friend in the South Pole.  The old Mariner is punished for his terrible crime of shattering the essential relationship that exists among the creatures on the earth by killing the friendly albatross.  The dead albatross is hung on his neck.  That albatross falls from his neck only when he learns to admire the beauty of the water snakes in the moonlight and also blesses them.  He learns the essential inter-relatedness of the creatures on the earth.  The Mariner spends the rest of his life in penance by trying to teach other people love and reverence for all “God’s creatures.”

People like Kasab refuse or fail to understand what the Ancient Mariner and many others try to teach.   They rend the fabric of humanity mercilessly.  Why shouldn’t humanity be saved from such people?  This was my stand.

Until I read George Orwell’s essay, A Hanging, published in The Hindu on Aug 31, as part of the newspaper’s “editorial campaign for the abolition of capital punishment.”

Orwell’s essay didn’t convert me as easily as it seemed to have done many other readers who promptly wrote letters to the editor which the paper published equally promptly the very next day.  Orwell’s essay confused me.

Orwell’s essay is characteristically dramatic.  It presents the scene of an actual hanging in Burma (where Orwell served for some time as an officer of the British Imperial Police) of “a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man…”  The only lines in the whole long essay where Orwell speaks explicitly about death penalty are these:

“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 eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain 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.”

The rest of the essay is a narrative of the drama that unfolded.  A dog becomes a major character in that drama and serves as a stark contrast to the human beings.  The dog appeared from nowhere and running to the prisoner tried to jump up and lick his face.  When the policemen tried to chase it away it behaved playfully.  Finally, when it saw what happened to the prisoner, “the dog, sobered and conscious of having misbehaved itself, slipped after them.”  The men, on the other hand, not sobered and not conscious of what they have done, celebrated with a bottle of whiskey. 

Orwell’s essay did not convince me about the irrelevance or wrongness of death penalty.  It rather reinforced my conviction about the absurdity of human life.

Before I speak about the absurdity, I feel compelled to mention that Orwell reminded me of one of my favourite novelists, Dostoevsky.  In his novel, The Idiot, the eponymous protagonist has this to say about death penalty:

“To kill for murder is punishment incomparably more terrible than murder by brigands.  Anyone murdered by brigands, whose throat is cut at night in a wood, or something of that sort, must surely hope to escape till the very last minute.  There have been instances when a man has still hoped for escape, running or begging for mercy after his throat was cut.  But in the other case all that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain.  There is the sentence, and the whole awful torture in the world more terrible.  You may lead a soldier out and set him facing the cannon in battle and fire at him and he’ll still hope; but read a sentence of certain death over that same soldier, and he will go out of his mind or burst into tears.”

Hope was the last item in Pandora’s box.  In Greek mythology, a box was sent to the earth by Zeus as a punishment for Prometheus’ theft of fire.  The box contained all the ills that would plague mankind eternally.  Hope was the last item in it!

Dostoevsky’s protagonist (who was very innocent and far from being an idiot) was against taking away that hope (that last infirmity?) from man. 

Dostoevsky’s idiot also tells the story of a political prisoner who was going to be shot dead for his crime.  The man got ready to die.  There were just a few minutes, a few precious minutes of life, left for him.  He decided to spend two minutes out of the last five minutes of his life to take leave of his comrades, and two minutes to thinking to himself.  He knew beforehand what he would think about.  He would think about how he was now someone fully alive and in three minutes he would be something.  He thought that if he were given a chance to live, he would use the time of his life without wasting a single minute.

The man was indeed given a chance.  His sentence was commuted. 

But he did not live the rest of his life as he had planned or promised to himself.  “He didn’t live like that at all,” says Dostoevsky’s protagonist, “he wasted many, many minutes.”

That’s the absurdity of human life.  More often than not, man fails to realise the preciousness of his life, the short span allotted to him on the earth.  There’s so much to learn, so many mysteries to probe, the whole infinity lying hidden in William Blake’s “grain of sand.”  But man would rather go after the little things of mundane life; the little pleasures, the bottle of whiskey in the car “a hundred yards away” from the hanged man.

“We all had a drink together, native and European alike.  The dead man was a hundred yards away.”  They are the last words of Orwell’s essay. 

As I said in the beginning, Orwell has only left me confused.  Was he really opposing death penalty?  Was he advocating life, absurd as it is? 

Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, shows that a positively good man cannot survive in the world run by the normal men!  Death penalty is the prerogative of the good man.  He may not be hanged, he may not be shot dead… but he will be rendered incapable of surviving in the normal world.

So, what’s my real confusion?  When a criminal is to given the death penalty, we may don the garb of the civilised people and debate the right and wrong of the punishment.  But there are far too many ‘good’ people who are put on the metaphorical guillotine by the normal world quite frequently.  With the indifference of the guardians of the law in the world of Franz Kafka.

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13 Responses to Death Penalty – an essay

  1. Even i read that article and i was moved by something else !!
    I loved the narration and as u had mentioned the whisky part caught my attention !!
    I think people themselves are confused if death penalty is good or bad !!
    They r just nt able to take a stance !!
    Loved ur aticle as usual 🙂

    • matheikal says:

      Orwell is an excellent essayist, Aram. Better essayist than a novelist, I would say. So I’m not surprised you were moved by something in his essay. I was an admirer of his essays while a student of literature. But I had not read this particular essay.

      I too think people are confused. But when are they not confused? Were they not confused when they supported Anna Hazare? Were they not confused when they did not support Medha Patkar’s movement? …

      Thanks a lot for your recommendation of my article (which I love to call an essay in the vainglory of my vanity). You are the only reader of mine who has discovered that LIKE button so far!

  2. Toby Simmons says:

    Fascinating! A great blog all-round, by the way.
    Let me know what you think of mine . . .
    Keep on writing!

  3. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    Too literary for me, Matheikal; but that is my fault. I too have enjoyed reading The Idiot, but only at my level of literature illiteracy.

    I am also confused; after saying all this, and coming down the steps of literature and into the mundane, have you changed your position on death penalty? I am left to wonder. If Kasab is your example, so should the recent murderer in Norway be. If the Norwegian is going to be allowed to live, in a global sense isn’t there an asymmetry in hanging Kasab. How would you justify such differential treatment. By the way, Kasab would have been brain washed by others whereas the Norwegian brain washed himself; compounded crimes?

    An excellent post, nonetheless.

    Raghuram Ekambaram.

  4. matheikal says:

    Thank you, Raghuram, for the endorsement. I must say I enjoyed writing this piece. I love to run through literature when I get the time and mood to do it.

    The Norwegian killer also deserves death penalty, according to me. It’s true Dostoevsky and Orwell have made me start thinking of death penalty differently. But I am not converted yet. I take a lot of time to be converted, you see.

  5. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    Likewise here Matheikal; it took me no less than a decade to be rid of religious nonsense and those ten years, I had gone through torture that is at least an order more severe than anything I had experienced anywhere. But, the light at the end of the tunnel was blindingly bright. I am glad I am out of the underground now.

    Raghuram Ekambaram

  6. Aditi says:

    It was a pleasure to read your essay, Matheikal. You have brought out the nuances of death penalty so well, through real and metaphorical use of the death sentence.

    Russian authors, particularly Dostoevsky is my favourite too, having been brought up in a very pro-Soviet Kolkata of my times…I had read him first in Bangla, as I remember…my son has taken a fascination to read Russian authors of late…while I have forgotten most of what I had read, irony…

  7. benny says:

    I just like the way it is written and the ideas in it. “Liked” it but has not yet signed to word press.

    • matheikal says:

      Thanks you, Benny. You give me some hope because I’m seriously thinking of making writing my post-retirement occupation. My school has given me enough material for writing a novel too!

  8. Jose D.Maliekal says:

    Dear Tomichan,

    Just returned from Kolkoata. I happened to re-visit your Blogs. And read this one on Capital Punishment. Very insightful and thought-provoking.

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