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Democracy is too humble to kill anyone

By Tony Smith - posted Tuesday, 23 October 2007

The adage about the certainty of death and taxes should include mathematical calculations. Fortunately however, while electoral counts might be invaluable aids in choosing our own governments, democracy is an uncertain project. This is why we reject the notion of a tyranny of the majority. Democracy is an essentially human form of politics that demands moderation from the government of the day and we citizens should expect politicians to keep their inevitable promises about accepting victory humbly.

Many of us dislike so much what the Howard Government has done precisely because it has proceeded with arrogant disregard for expert advice. And yet, there have been signs of hope. When the Chaser team harass ministers and backbench MPs, some Coalition figures have shown themselves to be full of self importance. Others, however, have displayed a sense of humour that encourages even severe critics to think that there might be some humility around the Cabinet table. The Attorney General and Foreign Minister have certainly displayed that encouragingly democratic trait of humanity. Until recently.

The Australian Government’s ambivalent policy on capital punishment sends a chill down the spine. In the recent case of the Bali bombers, the Government’s statements went beyond a policy of non-intervention to imply tacit approval. The notion that these people knew what they were doing suggests that they deserve their punishment. While at first sight this position seems understandable, it is inconsistent with an in principle opposition to capital punishment because it is wrong, always and everywhere. The obvious problem is that if we claim the right to describe some executions as satisfactory, then it is difficult to deny that right to others. This must encourage China for example, to continue executing people convicted of crimes such as theft, and many other countries including Burma, to identify people as terrorists in order to continue such degrading punishments.


There are many reasons to oppose capital punishment. While some member states of the United Nations retain the death penalty in their legislation, the tide is turning against capital punishment for obvious reasons. First, human rights arise prior to membership of a particular state and no group of people, simply by constituting themselves into a political unit, has the right to kill. Executing your fellow citizens is an act of extremism. Secondly, it is barbaric in operation and cannot be administered justly. It is macabre to distinguish between shooting, hanging, poisoning, suffocation, garrotting, stoning and beheading. Thirdly, executions have negative effects for society as a whole. Capital punishment sanctions extreme violence. Fourthly, capital punishment does not work as a deterrent or it would never be used more than once in any state. Finally, it is usually imposed on people who do not belong to the influential elite in any society. In the face of such appalling facts, abolition owes nothing to misplaced compassion for people convicted of terrible crimes but a common sense desire for everyone to live with integrity. Sister Helen Prejean, writer of Dead Man Walking, about a man on death row says (The Spirit of Things, ABC RN, 23 September) "maybe in some books of justice, when a person kills, they deserve to die. Who deserves to kill them?" Carrying out state killing is itself a terrible sentence to inflict on anyone.

When Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd disciplined shadow minister Robert McClelland for attacking the Howard Government’s inconsistency on this issue, he cited insensitivity around the anniversary of the Bali bombings as the issue. A few points must be made here.

The first is that if we set our political discussions according to the actions of terrorists, then surely this affords them a victory.

The second is that we should not assume that victims of terrorism approve of executions. Indeed, it is highly irresponsible for a government or an opposition to encourage victims to believe that executing the perpetrators of crimes brings some closure.

Adele Horin’s article "Killing undertaken by the state is still killing" (Sydney Morning Herald 13-14 October 2007) notes at least one case where a victim’s father thought that the execution of her killer would bring some relief, but found that it did not do so. And even if it this were a likely outcome, it is surely the task of government to create alternative means of supporting victims’ families.

The third point is that there is little evidence that the execution of terrorists deters future potential terrorists. When terrorists court martyrdom and engage in suicide bombing, it is difficult to identify the deterrent effect. Indeed the contrary effect might be expected. In the area of responding to terrorism, the Government has been inclined to take extreme actions without much evidence that success is likely. Louise Barry, a survivor of the 2005 London bombings, has launched a campaign for withdrawal of Australian forces from Iraq precisely because the Australian Government’s policy directions have not made us any safer (see GetUp).


Few Australians would wish to live in a theocracy. Most of us are political sceptics, who do not believe that governments are perfectly wise. We entrust them with our taxes and with decisions that are temporary, reasonably shallow and eventually reversible. Power over life and death does not sit easily with democracy, and neither does cynical political exploitation of grief and anger. Regardless of partisan attachments, we should all reject extremism and value moderation.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.

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