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Anatomy of fear

/ 04:28 AM March 03, 2017

Much has been said and written about the moral aspects of the proposed revival of the death penalty (or lack thereof).

These moral dimensions are important, and need to be discussed even more now that a death penalty bill has been approved on second reading in the House of Representatives. The indecent haste will continue until it is rammed into law, and this could happen very soon.

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What I want to tackle is the “deterrence” argument being used to support capital punishment. Put simply, the argument is that once you execute people for the heinous crimes that are named in the bill, you will strike fear in the hearts of the criminals and would-be criminals, and they will think twice, thrice, many times, before breaking the law. Crime rates would then drop.

But this argument is based on a lack of understanding of what is involved with fear and deterrence, which have been the subject of research by social scientists, natural scientists, and even medical professionals for decades now, and which has been used to back the abolition of the death penalty in many countries. (In the Philippines, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo abolished the death penalty based more on her personal religious views.)

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Powerful but fleeting

Fear is powerful indeed, a very primitive emotion found throughout the animal kingdom, and that includes humans. Fear evolved early in animals as an instinctive protective mechanism, pushing animals to avoid danger and minimize risks.

But among humans, the processing of fear involves other brain functions. Instinctive responses remain, as when we jump when we see a snake, or when we avoid walking through a dark alley. Note that even at this “primitive” level, there will be variations among individuals. As parents know all too well, we see differences even among our children. “Walang takot”—no fear—we sigh about a particular child, sometimes said with anxiety because we worry about the kind of extreme risks the child may take, but sometimes also said with pride because we see this fearlessness as an asset.

We know, too, that fear is taught. Overprotective parents can end up raising children who become too fearful of the world because they are taught that it is fraught with danger. A healthier approach is to teach children to take calculated risks, to temper but not suppress their fears.

Finally, fear is learned. We are conditioned into avoiding certain situations, places, creatures like snakes and spiders and cockroaches… and people, because of unpleasant experiences. Think of the people we avoid because we have been emotionally battered by them.

The anatomy of fear is complicated in humans because we are rational beings, and I use the term here in a more general way to mean that we “reason,” sometimes excessively. We respond to our fears no longer based on instinct alone but also with this reasoning, as we argue with each other, and with ourselves, about risks and dangers.

We’re usually able to do this well, but sometimes the fears become excessive, creating chronic anxiety and preventing us from functioning well.  Psychologists and psychiatrists then come into the picture, helping to process what are now called anxiety disorders and phobias.

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But generally, fear runs through our lives as quick, fleeting reactions, which is why the idea of controlling crime by instilling fear just doesn’t work. Fear tactics can work only in the short term.

Let’s be specific and look now at the death penalty, fear and deterrence.

War on drugs

The restoration of the death penalty is part of the ongoing war on drugs (note how “plunder,” originally in the list of capital crimes, was removed). But the complicated anatomy of fear becomes even more convoluted when it comes to the use of drugs.

Fear is not processed as fear alone.  People think of costs and benefits.  Will I be caught, and if I am caught, what will I lose?  On the other hand, drugs offer pleasure in many forms, from escaping problems to euphoria.

For the death penalty to work, people have to see evidence that crime does not pay, and this comes about in terms of seeing criminals being apprehended, brought to court, convicted, and the punishment being meted out.  We know all too well that at each stage in this continuum, we run into problems: not enough law enforcers, corruption among so-called enforcers, and the courts.

Besides this, the evidence from other countries is that people will avoid crimes if they see justice meted out, and this justice does not have to be the death penalty.

There is also the issue of a fear threshold: What does it take to instill fear? In the Philippines, it takes a lot because our culture is largely fear-based. We are a “hala” and “lagot” society, threatening our children constantly with punishment, invoking Tatay, the police, or God (even, lately, President Duterte) as potential punishers. Yet Filipinos learn early enough, even as children, that you can get away with “crime”—parents drive through traffic lights when there are no traffic enforcers, or even when there are traffic enforcers, because they carry the calling cards of generals and governors.

People know of the many arrests going on, but note that it is mainly the poor being apprehended. There are occasional reports of the high and mighty getting arrested, and their disappearance from the news is interpreted by people as their getting off the hook. I’ve seen even the poor carrying a sense of impunity because they know someone who knows someone powerful.

If there’s anything that shows why the fear of the death penalty will not work in the war on drugs, it’s, well, the war on drugs itself. More than 7,000 alleged drug pushers and users have been killed so far, mostly extrajudicially, brutally, in their homes, in front of family and friends. Yet we continue to see people using and selling drugs. I’ve lost track, too, of the news reports of relatives, usually wives or mothers of drug dependents, trying to smuggle drugs into prisons to their loved ones.

The extrajudicial killings are far more gruesome than capital punishment, and take place every day. They cast fear, no doubt, with so many correlated stimuli—the dark night, the knocking (more often banging) on the doors, but all these do not deter drug-related crimes. Part of conditioning theory is that when you keep trying to reinforce a certain stimulus—positive or negative—you reach the point of extinction. It no longer works. That is happening today, especially in our poor communities where people have been so brutalized for so long, way before the war on drugs.

Fear is pervasive, but it has not and will not deter crime.

Capital punishment will only provide a new public spectacle, one that might even be, horror of horrors, entertaining.

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