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Death penalty sates need for vengeance; danger in our authoritarian times

The killing in Fredericton of four people, two of them police officers, has sparked another round of the eternal gun-control debate. Even in Canada, we’ve not done enough to eliminate such mass shootings, but at least the discussions will be much less charged than south of the border.

Another of our neighbour’s favourite debates – the death penalty – has appeared in the margins in response to the New Brunswick incident, largely because the responding officers were killed.

The suspect was shot and apprehended in the doing, meaning there is someone to face the hangman’s justice … if we did such a thing. That’s in contrast to the recent mindless, random killings in Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood, where the perpetrator isn’t alive to face justice/retribution.

Pragmatically, the death penalty makes sense. Or would, if we opted for summary execution of those found guilty of capital crimes – the judicial equivalent of taking the criminal out back and shooting him. That would be quick and low cost. Instead, even in death-friendly states, the process can take years (decades even) and costs vast sums of money.

Many people would have no problem putting down the likes of Paul Bernardo or even the shooter in Fredericton. In cases where guilt is clear, there’s no question of mistakenly killing an innocent person, which is one of the principal arguments against capital punishment. Think of a few Canadian examples in which people were found guilty of capital offenses but later exonerated – Donald Marshall, David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin, for instance – no chance of righting the wrong after the fact when the innocent party is dead.

Canada hasn’t killed a convict since 1962 – the two men who swung for their crimes were both cop killers, in fact. From its inception, the country carried out 710 death sentences (697 men and 13 women) before calling a moratorium on the practice. The government formally abolished the death penalty in 1976, though it would be another 22 years before the last mention of it was removed from the National Defence Act for such military offences as treason and mutiny.

The killing of the wrongfully convicted aside, there are moral grounds for decades-old stance on capital punishment. Meeting death with death smacks of vengeance rather than justice, though there’s something to be said for a collective appeal to closure of the most unsavoury incidents in society. That’s particularly popular among those worried about terrorism and those who perpetrate it.

The killing of criminals, particularly in the public square as was once the case, is certainly one of those law-and-order staples – a “restoring lost greatness” quest, if you will. No matter how much research shows that capital punishment is no deterrent to future crime, there’s something primal in the eye-for-an-eye approach to justice.

There is a danger, however, in giving in to our basest nature. The moral arguments are legion, but in our increasingly repressive surveillance state, there’s a much more pressing danger in allowing the state even more leeway in such matters.

Historically, the number of crimes warranting death dwindled before the practice was dropped. In 1859, for example, the offences punishable by death in Upper and Lower Canada were, “murder, rape, treason, administering poison or wounding with intent to commit murder, unlawfully abusing a girl under ten, buggery with man or beast, robbery with wounding, burglary with assault arson, casting away a ship and exhibiting a false signal endangering a ship.” By 1869, the statutes covering capital punishment were revised such that only three crimes carried the death penalty: murder, treason and, rape. In 1961, the year before the final executions, new legislation reclassified murder into capital and non capital offences.

Reinstating the death sentence for murder could open a barred door, making us susceptible to a widening list of “crimes,” such as we see in many much more overtly authoritarian countries. That may seem hyperbolic today, especially on this side of the border, but we do live in an increasingly authoritarian world.

We’re already in fact seeing early signs of thought crimes creeping into society courtesy of a wide range of social media shaming, political correctness and widespread whinging. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the overzealous, under-pondered rants of both extremes of the political spectrum morphing into actual criminal offenses. Nor to see government cracking down on public dissent, so easily disseminated thanks to technology and corporatist control that the likes of Orwell and Huxley could never have imagined in their worst dreams, things that are already nightmares to a free and open society.

Many governments in the West have been quick to foster a culture of fear, allowing them to impose laws that would have been unthinkable before 9/11 and to spend vast sums of money on military, police and security programs that have enriched the coffers of a few at everyone else’s expense.

With each new measure that increases video, phone and Internet surveillance, overrides the judicial process and creates new enemies through wars, we edge a little closer to the kind of dystopian state Orwell, Huxley and countless others have warned us about.

Fear, unfortunately, is used continually to strip us of our rights and to justify massive amounts of spending on the military and police. Those seeking power and taxpayers’ dollars – lots and lots of dollars – have no interest in changing the status quo, even if it’s all built on lies.

Technology has been abused to our detriment, and will continue to be used to make everyone’s lives worse. It’s no big leap to see the monitoring of our devices become more overt – it’s not about foreign terrorists, but tracking dissent – as authoritarians look to control the speech and even private musings propagated by our use of gadgets. Though the technology is different, we’ve seen plenty of cases where speech is first classified as, say, antisocial or unpatriotic and then becomes criminal. People have hanged for less.

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