Should Tsarnaev Be Put to Death?


The verdict in Boston — death to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — may cause some libertarians to reaffirm or reconsider their position on the death penalty.

To me, the arguments against the death penalty seem obvious.

  1. The state always has too much power — why give it the ultimate power?
  2. While some crimes of passion can be excused as, well, crimes of passion, cold-blooded killing is always ugly and sickening.
  3. There is always the possibility that an executed person will later be found innocent. There is a somewhat larger possibility that even a person so worthless as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could change and become, in effect, another person.

But I confess: these arguments, though obvious, do not seem conclusive to me. They might seem conclusive if it weren’t for the weakness of the arguments that are often added to them by anti-death-penalty people:

  1. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s just as wrong to kill a killer as for the killer to have killed someone else.
  2. In proportion to the population, more black people than white people are executed.
  3. The incidence of murder in states that lack the death penalty is sometimes lower than the incidence of murder in states that have it.
  4. It costs a fortune to execute someone.

When I listen to these latter anti-death-penalty arguments, a strange thing happens to me. I get the feeling that the full ensemble of arguments is not as good as I thought it was — or why would the arguers (many of them professionally devoted to the cause) fill out their case with such weak and (I can’t help thinking) disingenuous pleas.

The Bible condones plenty of killings. The same biblical book that commands “Thou shalt not kill” also commands executions for various crimes. In the very next chapter, we find: “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” So “kill” in the first instance must mean “murder.” Even on non-biblical grounds, it seems very counterintuitive to suggest that it is as wrong for me to kill a man who casually murdered two teenagers and then happily ate the hamburgers they were carrying, as it is for the man to have killed the teenagers. Think of your own, doubtless even more horrible examples of crimes thought to merit the death penalty. Examples abound.

The state always has too much power — why give it the ultimate power?

The question to be asked about “racially disproportionate use of the death penalty” is whether particular black people or white people received a fair trial — not whether those people were black or white. If you want an assurance of fairness, nothing will satisfy you if the elaborate provisions of the death penalty codes fail to do so.

Does it make sense to compare murder rates in Massachusetts (2.0 per 100,000), which has the death penalty but hasn’t executed anyone since 1947, with murder rates in Texas (4.3 per 100,000), which executes people all the time, or Vermont (1.6) and Maryland (6.4), which have no death penalty? A deterrent that is rarely used can hardly deter; but would the death penalty, even if frequently used, explain the difference in murder rates between, say, Utah (1.7 per 100,000), which has the death penalty but also has a lot of Mormons, and Michigan (6.4 per 100,000), which abolished the death penalty soon after statehood, but which also has Detroit? The argument on each side seems impossible to make, on such evidence. Yet is there any possibility that the lack of a death penalty would actually lower the murder rate? How could that be?

It is childishly easy to answer the fourth objection, “It costs a fortune to execute someone.” It costs a fortune because of the legal ploys of the same people who are making the objection — ploys that are, in most cases, as intellectually dishonest as the objection itself.

It appears much less likely that an innocent person will be executed in today’s America than that I will kill an innocent person on my next drive downtown.

Where does this leave us? It leaves me acknowledging that there is something right, and something wrong, about the legitimate arguments on both sides. It leaves me with roughly the same questions that I think even anarchists would ask themselves about crime and punishment, if they succeeded in creating a society in which justice services were privatized.

Despite all attempted legal guarantees, is the death penalty sometimes wrongly carried out? Yes, probably it is, though it appears much less likely that an innocent person will be executed in today’s America than that I will kill an innocent person on my next drive downtown. Yes, it’s possible that I will suddenly confuse the accelerator with the brake, but that’s not a reason for me to give up driving.

It seems certain that the real prospect of a death penalty would deter certain crimes, but not others. As libertarians, we must pay enough respect to individual psychology to admit that. We must also specify that killing is ugly, no matter who carries it out. Also, I think, we must specify that the world would be better off without some of its inhabitants, especially those who wantonly murder other people.

I’ve noticed that when there is about to be an execution, intense emotions are evoked by the idea that John Smith is about to suffer “the ultimate penalty.” John is said to be a changed person, or a brutally misjudged person, or a sad, wayward, confused person, and people cry out for him on the internet. School children are told to write letters supporting him. Meanwhile, would-be enforcers of the death penalty dwell with badly hidden glee on his awful deeds. But immediately after he is executed or has his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, he is forgotten. The issue wasn’t John Smith; nobody really thought he was worth talking about, as a real person who had done real things; the issue was an identity-making cause called the Death Penalty. That doesn’t mean that John was, in the end, truly worthless. It does suggest that the contestants may harbor motives that have little to do with truth or justice.

My suggestion is that I, and other people interested in this controversy, put aside our eager concern with our identity as judges or sympathizers, warriors or reconcilers, and marvel, for a moment, at the complexity of the issue. In other words, I think it would behoove all the ideological contestants to become a little more reflective and a little less self-righteous.

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Whence Comes This Evil?


On the night of December 16, 2012, a couple boarded a bus in Delhi. There were already six men on the bus. They allegedly raped the girl, using an iron rod to torture her. She died of fatal injury in her abdomen, intestines, and genitals. A minor among the six men may have been the most brutal rapist. He allegedly inserted the iron rod into her vagina and ripped out her intestines, only 5% of which were still inside her body when she was thrown on the roadside. She died a few days later in a hospital in Singapore.

The response has been massive, nonviolent protests in most Indian cities. The protestors — men and women — blamed the government for not providing enough security to women. They asked for death sentence for rapists. The incident was widely covered in media around the world. Government was forced to provide her with top medical care. She was flown to Singapore at public expense. The case was transferred to a fast-track court. Two police commissioners were suspended for their failure to prevent this gang rape. New Year celebrations around the country were cancelled.

For some, this rape was a turning point in India. For them, India is now leading the way for the world in fighting against the violence against women. The US government posthumously awarded the 2013 “International Women of Courage Award” to the raped girl. Intellectuals praised Indians for staying non-violent during their protests. Recently Indian government promulgated a law that provides the death penalty for rapists.

Has India finally awakened?

A minor event in the scheme of things?

Honestly, I am not sure what is supremely significant about this case. Violence is an inherent part of the Indian cultural fabric. Poor people get openly beaten up by the police. Even well-off people must be obsequious when dealing with those in the government — a crime against their sense of self, a poison to their humanity and integrity.

A few months back, in Bhopal, I saw a kid being very badly beaten by a bunch of policemen right in the middle of the main square. They had circled him and were slapping him so hard that he was almost flying around from one policeman to another. Other kids had been forced to stand and watch while this was happening. People continued to walk around, enjoying their ice cream without the slightest — not the very slightest of slight — strain on their faces. Some of the kids who were forced to watch were giggling. Was a criminal, insensitive, unsocial, numb future in the making? I bet it was.

The circle of violence is far, far wider and deeper and much more irrational than people would like to think.

The sad irony about India is that even animals are scared of you — children pass on the torture they receive to those less capable of defending themselves. The circle of violence is far, far wider and deeper and much more irrational than people would like to think.

Should I blame these kids if they rape when they grow up? Or should I blame the policemen who were behind the future rapists? Or should I blame the normal people who were too numb to feel any strain? But were they themselves the product of abuses in their homes while they were growing up? Should I just blame men in general, as feminists demand? Or should I blame women, who in India are mostly responsible for bringing up children and forming their character? Or should I blame the culture — which has huge medieval, superstitious aspects — a culture that through its rationalizations and justifications and discouragement of critical thinking carries the ingredients that do not allow for a break from the cycle of violence and drudgery?

Hypocrisy and apathy

In the past I reported to legal authorities about such abuses — and once in a while still do — along with evidence. Mostly nothing happened. Instead I was made an utter fool. People laughed at me. In a very rare case when the victimizer was cornered, the abused compromised for pennies in bribes or for the satisfaction of torturing the weaker. But talking about this would be too much of a digression for now.

Anyone who has been in India knows full well that you don’t have to search for crimes. You see abuses all around you, nonstop. At the Delhi airport, in full view of everyone, conmen operating out of booths provided by the airport rip off newly arrived tourists. I once went to the head of aviation about this, pointing out that it could easily lead not only to financial troubles for the tourist but also to sexual risks for female tourists (they face many, and most go unreported). He put me on a conveyor belt of such horrendous bureaucracy that I gave up. Nonstop troubles persist for tourists from the time one’s plane comes in until one finally departs. And of course, Indians face the same, self-inflected problems. Bribery and corruption are so open that you hardly need to look for news on the TV to feel horrified. But Indians need the TV to feel horrified, in the safe confines of their houses.

About 135,000 die on Indian roads each year. If you spent a day driving around in India, you would see at least a couple of dead bodies lying on the streets or highways. As the traffic speed is rather low in India — because of the chaos that exists — immediate fatalities are rare. A lot of people could be saved. But they die of slow bleeding and trauma. People just stand and watch. Ambulances never arrive. China is well known for bad driving, but in comparison to India, it has only about one-ninth as many fatalities per vehicle.

Apathy and desperation, two characteristics that are common among the lower class elsewhere, are common even among the middle class in India. I can understand that if poor people cared or had long time-preferences, fear and anxiety would dominate their moment-to-moment lives. To exist they must stay numb. But why apathy and desperation have never left the middle class in India, as any student of sociology would expect, is a mystery to me. Is it that Hinduism or some other aspect of the local culture preempts individuals and the society from self-analysis or thinking beyond material well-being? I don’t know, but at best those becoming richer seem to be moving from apathy to debauchery, at best.

If you spent a day driving around in India, you would see at least a couple of dead bodies lying on the streets or highways.

When a crime happens in India the first reaction of most people I know is to want to keep the police out of the picture. They know that the police would rape them again (figuratively, if not literally). Every Indian whom I know, knows this. But what is surprising is that as soon as they think in terms of groups, they want police control over people to increase. And really, how could police have stopped rapes unless they converted the society into an Orwellian surveillance state? To make a real, significant change in society, people should have looked at the underpinnings. In essence, the protests did not come out of a passion to stop crime but from something else.

Who were the protestors?

I was extremely curious about these people protesting so vociferously against the rape. I have hardly ever met such individuals. Were they protesting for entertainment? Or is this something they have recently copied from the West? I do find the way they light candles on the photographs of victims a bit out of place, for India has had no such custom. Or maybe protesting is their way to feign that they care? Or maybe they watch too much TV and want to adopt Western ways of showing care, or to feel that they have arrived? Or maybe they feel so isolated socially that the crowd gives them a feeling of catharsis? Or maybe this was just another of series of hysterias that Indians are prone to suffering, now made much worse by television, which make the non-thinking gyrate at the same rhythm with increasing frequency?

Protestors have accused the alleged rapists before due process and want the minor to hang as well as the others. (According to the law he could be walking free within the next three years.) Indians don’t understand that it is only the due process that can give integrity to the legal system. One of the accused rapists has already died in an alleged suicide. No one wants to know how he actually died. Another ended up in the hospital after being beaten. If people care about justice, they should care most about those in the frontline of dealing with the law. It is exactly these alleged rapists who should get a very fair trial. What if those arrested are not really the rapists? Would the courts tell the true story behind the circumstances, given the nature of public opinion? And will we ever hear the story of why the rapists became such vicious people? Of course, one must understand that what these men did was not just sex. They had a huge amount of hatred for society bubbling inside them.

Is the issue over-feminized?

Crime is crime. Trying to show rape as a crime that one subgroup commits against another leads to faulty understanding of the issues. Nevertheless, over the years, law and social pressure have increased the age at which people can marry. Feminist movements have been vociferously behind this. No thinking has gone into the fact that premarital sex is still a major taboo in India. Prostitution is illegal. Of course, not getting sex gives men no justification for rape! But does it not create conditions for it? It would have been far better if poor Indians had been allowed to marry earlier if that is what they wanted.

India’s legal structure is weak to nonexistent. But the feminist movement has encouraged women to go out and do whatever they want, without letting anyone add a word of caution that even when the pedestrian light is green it is worth taking a glance on both sides. Some Indian laws unfairly favour women, leading these laws to be hugely misused. New laws would of course be used for political purposes, and sane men would be scared of interaction with women. Would the death penalty stop rape? Only a naïf can believe that the thought of capital punishment acts as an adequate restraint on prospective rapists, their blood full of sex hormones.

In the blame game in which men as a subgroup are isolated as standalone culprits, no one dares bring up the fact that in India women have the responsibility for raising children. In today’s world, suggesting to women that they might be abusing children at home or forming a wrong character in them is no longer allowed.

Of course, rapists should get severe punishment. But if Indians are serious about meaningfully improving their society, they need to start some serious introspection.

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