There’s the Rub

Crime and punishment

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Capital punishment is back in the headlines as two countries try to battle crime with it.

In Iran, the authorities just carried out the public hanging of two criminals, aged 24 and 20, who were caught on video mugging and knifing a man. The victim lived despite his wounds, but the Iranian authorities did not take it to be a mitigating circumstance. It was the first public execution in some time—Iran has been hanging criminals but only within prison walls—and a fairly good crowd watched it.

Government says it did this to stop the rash of mugging, robberies, and rape that have been taking place in Iran. “Our city has become completely unsafe,” said a 54-year-old woman who herself has been a victim of a robbery. “Two young men entered my house two weeks ago and beat me senseless,” she said. They took away everything in sight.

In India, the MPs have also been calling for the death penalty to be imposed on the four rapists of a young woman in a bus. The incident, which led to the death of the woman after being brutalized in the course of the rape, stoked the nation to fury. Government has created five special courts that would fast-track cases of violence against women, especially rape, and the judge in this case has moved to move the trial to one of those courts. This is to avoid the great delays, incompetence and corruption Indian courts are known for.

While these are happening abroad, here at home the trial of the Ampatuans, Zaldy and Andal, continues to be put off for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeping in this petty pace from day to day. Three-and-a-half years later, the crime of the century, which also stoked this nation to fury, quite apart from the world to disgust, is nowhere near to getting on. Hell, it’s nowhere near to even beginning, the trial getting postponed again and again. It gets to come up now and then in the public consciousness, largely due to the untiring efforts of the press organizations and the smoldering anger of the victims’ kin, but that is all. The last time it drew public attention was when government and the defense lawyers debated whether it should be televised or not.

Meanwhile, some legislators are proposing as well that the death penalty be revived to stop runaway crime. The proposals were aired plentifully after a girl died from being hit by a wayward bullet last New Year’s Eve, but have since tapered off considerably.

The last is thoroughly misguided. The one thing we may not envy our neighbors for, or seek to emulate, is meting death to those who commit crime, heinous or not. At the very least, that is because the death penalty has never been known to deter crime. Hanging criminals has been there for some time in Iran, however hidden from view, but it hasn’t stopped the rash of crime. Indeed, a hugely draconian system that curtails freedom and human rights has been there for some time in Iran, but it hasn’t stopped the rape and robbery, the murder and mayhem.

The calls for the death penalty in India haven’t stopped the mind-boggling epidemic of rape there either. Shortly after the gang-rape of the woman in a bus, another gang-rape took place in another bus. Meanwhile, rape, often of the unthinkable kind, such as the assault on a 7-year-old girl in the toilet of a public school, is routinely reported in various parts of the country.

At the very most, that is because the death penalty is not even cathartic. The public executions in Iran have not made Iran out to be just, however harsh; it has made it out to be just harsh, or primitive. Public hangings are a throwback to the Middle Ages, also called the Dark Ages for very good reason, and only lend the hanged some degree of sympathy. Particularly where they are so young, such as in the case of the recently hanged, they are not beyond rehabilitation or redemption.

I know that in our case, the execution of a house painter by lethal injection for rape did not produce that catharsis or cleansing; it merely induced depression and not a bit of shame. Certainly, it did not deter rape, not an iota of it.

But what we may envy our neighbors for, and seek to emulate, is the swiftness or sense of urgency with which they punish a crime. Of course, nothing beats going to the roots of the crime—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But where crime has already happened, you need to punish. Where a wrong has already been done, you need to right it. Where the order of the universe has already been skewed, you need to restore its balance.

That is something we have failed to do, that is something we continue to fail to do. It’s not that we cannot get furious at things like the Maguindanao massacre or the death of Stephanie Nicole, it’s that we can’t seem to sustain it. And being unable to sustain it, allow them to blithely go by. Government can always help remedy the situation by making sure the cases are handled with dispatch, and are resolved long before the fury has dissipated. Like the Indian idea of fast-track courts to handle rape cases, we can always create fast-track courts to handle cases of murder with impunity, or as in the case of Maguindanao, massacre with impunity. However we cringe at the Iranian hangings or the cries for blood that have followed the rape cases in India, we have to admire at least their resolve to make sure that where there is crime, there is punishment.

Excess, of course, is a vice. But the excess doesn’t just happen when the punishment is too much too soon, it also happens when the punishment is too little too late. Or as is often the case with us, not at all. Maybe somewhere in the middle, we can find wisdom.

Maybe somewhere in the middle, we can find justice.

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