I HAVE been asked by some readers to state my position on the death penalty debate. Among them are some incumbent congressmen, who probably hope that my views will help them decide on their position on the issue.
There is a sense of urgency about the matter, because the House is set to end today plenary debate on the issue. Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez is determined that by mid-March, the House of Representatives of the 17th Congress will successfully pass House Bill 4727, and thereby set the stage for the enactment of a law on capital punishment.
You cannot answer the policy question by saying that the church where you worship teaches that the death penalty is necessary, or that it is inhuman and should be rejected.
Neither is it sensible to just answer that you are in favor of the penalty, because President Duterte wants the death penalty restored in the country, so that the state can execute criminals more expeditiously.
The point is each of us must think the issue through for himself, and apply his best judgment of what would be good public policy for our country. We should not abdicate the responsibility, because the issue will define what kind of society we are.
An issue for thorough study
I have not rushed to define my personal position on the issue, because the issue is quite complex and requires thorough study. It is simple only for lazy minds.
This past month, I have spent time doing research, reading some of the most current and thoughtful papers on the subject. Now, I feel confident that I can say something useful about the death penalty.
I reserve this week for several columns on the death penalty, which in sequence will discuss: 1) the case for the restoration of the death penalty; (2) the case for the rejection or abolition of the penalty); and 3) the contemporary trend away from severe punishment (which is a useful perspective for the Philippine debate).
I begin by discussing first what I have found to be some of the more compelling arguments for capital punishment.
Why the death penalty is necessary
Like other government executives before him, our President Duterte believes that the death penalty is affirmative of life. By failing to execute murderers or stop drug lords, we signal a lessened regard for the value of the lives of victims.
Society has a right to defend itself. The state has the responsibility to protect its citizens, by ensuring that the law is obeyed and violators are punished.
This is the standard “moral defense” of death as punishment. Even if executions don’t deter violent crime or the drug trade any more effectively than imprisonment, the death penalty is still required because it is the only means society has of doing justice in response to the worst of crimes.
Capital punishment affirms life
One of the landmark documents in support of capital punishment is a famous essay penned by former New York City mayor Edward Koch, which he entitled: “Death and justice: How capital punishment affirms life”.
He wrote it while he was city mayor (1978-1989). He became a speaker in many forums on the death penalty. Refuting his arguments became a major objective of opponents of capital punishment because he speaks persuasively about the justice and necessity of the penalty.
In his essay, Koch addresses seven arguments against the death penalty.
The death penalty is barbaric.
No other major democracy uses the death penalty.
An innocent person might be executed by mistake.
Capital punishment cheapens the value of human life.
The death penalty is applied in a discriminatory manner.
Thou shalt not kill.
The death penalty is state-sanctioned murder.
Koch’s survey of arguments is sweeping and he builds a case that is cogent and compelling. It demands an answer that is as soundly rooted in facts, logic and conviction. He cites actual cases to make his points.
I quote below some paragraphs that are the highlight of his essay. He wrote:
“Life is indeed precious, and I believe the death penalty helps to affirm that fact.
“The death of anyone—even a convicted killer—diminishes us all. But we are diminished even more by a justice system that fails to function. It is an illusion to let ourselves believe that doing away with capital punishment removes the murderer’s deed from our conscience.”
Rights of society are paramount
“The rights of society are paramount. When we protect guilty lives, we give up innocent lives in exchange.
“When opponents of capital punishment say to the state, ‘I will not let you kill in my name’, they are also saying to murderers: ‘You can kill in your own name as long as I have an excuse for not being involved.’
“It is hard to imagine anything worse than being murdered while neighbors do nothing. But something worse exists. When those same neighbors shrink back from justly punishing the murderer, the victim dies twice.”
This is powerful reasoning.
President Duterte’s thinking on the trafficking of illegal drugs, drug lords and drug pushers, is roughly similar to this. He shares the frustration and anger of people who see that the Noynoy Aquino government did nothing to combat the drug menace. So what if suspects are killed during the drug war, to wipe out the menace?
In my next column, I will discuss the equally powerful reasoning of the opponents of capital punishment. Be warned, they include the likes of writers like Nobel laureate Albert Camus.