Perfect enough to kill ‘em? Then throw the first stone

firing squad

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I knew who Chan and Sukumaran were, or what the Bali 9 had done to deserve their fate. But that’s the point, regardless of who it concerns, the what of the case (the death penalty) is as ever, up for debate.

The impending executions of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran has caused a flurry of commentary from journalists, doctors, lawyers, human rights groups, and politicians in Australia. Considering this possible overexposure to the case, I cautiously add my 2 cents worth.

I think arguments based on ethics are reason enough to oppose the death penalty. Practical considerations, such as a lack of evidence that the death penalty ‘works’ or that Chan and Sukumaran are models of successful rehabilitation might seem compelling, but they miss the point: It doesn’t matter what they did, they shouldn’t be shot.

Arguing that they are perfect examples of rehabilitation suggests that people are valuable only because of their actions—rather than valuable despite their actions. The conclusion seems to be that if they had not rehabilitated, it would be OK to execute them. I disagree.

Humans, inherently fallible, shouldn’t give themselves the right to take a life. The call is too big.

A perfect person might be able to make that decision since they would be free from error, but since we’re not, we shouldn’t.

Now of course the entire legal system is based on the assumption that flawed people can judge wisely and objectively with few mistakes. To enjoy a safe society like Australia, this assumption, while wrong, is necessary up to a point.

Killing somebody is the maximum amount of power a human can impose on another. When sanctioned by law, there is no act which assumes infallibility more. The death penalty can never be proven to be the ‘right’ decision in any objective sense. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Either way it’s too big a gamble.

Yes, from a results or utilitarian perspective some may argue that the death penalty is leading to the prevention of further crimes; thus justified. This, however seems like a classic case of the ends not justifying the means. To reach such a conclusion, you first have to place a finite value on human life rather than seeing each person as possessing immeasurable worth.

Going back to Chan and Sukumaran, they admit that they broke the law and committed a serious mistake by smuggling drugs. They now understand that societies need laws to function and that their actions have consequences. Nobody is denying this. Nor is anyone arguing that drugs don’t cause serious societal and personal problems for those who choose to take them.

But to judge that a life shouldn’t be lived, is one step too far. It assumes your powers of judgement are perfect and leads to irreversible results.

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