The Doctrine of Revenge
by Desmond Tutu
I have seen the horror of the death penalty and the violence it propels. It is time for a global ban.
For most of the 20th century the majority of the world’s nations used the death penalty. But, as the millennium approached, many societies questioned whether killing their citizens through the judicial system served a positive purpose. I am delighted that the death penalty is being removed from the globe. To a Christian whose belief system is rooted in forgiveness, the death penalty is unacceptable.
Either in law or in practice, 130 countries have now abolished the death penalty. And since 1990, 50 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Last year only 25 countries carried out executions.
So strong is the global sentiment against the death penalty – with some notable exceptions, such as the United States, China and Singapore – that a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions and the abolition of capital punishment is scheduled to go before the United Nations general assembly tomorrow. The world community will decide its view on the morality of capital punishment.
I have experienced the horror of being close to an execution. Not only during the apartheid era of South Africa, when the country had one of the highest execution rates in the world, but in other countries as well.
And I have witnessed the victims of the death penalty the authorities never speak of – the families of those put to death. I remember the parents of Napoleon Beazley, a young African-American man put to death in Texas after a trial tainted by racism. Their pain was evident as the killing of their son by the state to which they paid taxes approached. I can only imagine the unbearable emotional pain they went through as they said their final goodbye to their son on the day of his execution.
It is often asked by those favouring the death penalty: “What if your child was murdered?” And it is a natural question. Rage is a common reaction to the homicide of a loved one, and a wish for revenge is understandable. But what if the person condemned to death was your son? No one raises a child to be a murderer, yet many parents suffer the grief of knowing their child is to be killed. In 1988, the parents of those on death row in South Africa wrote to the president, saying: “To be a mother or father and watch your child going through this living hell is a torment more painful than anyone can imagine.” We must not put these children to death. It is to inflict horrific and unacceptable suffering upon them, and their mothers and fathers.
Retribution, resentment and revenge have left us with a world soaked in the blood of far too many of our sisters and brothers. The death penalty is part of that process. It says that to kill in certain circumstances is acceptable, and encourages the doctrine of revenge. If we are to break these cycles, we must remove government-sanctioned violence.
The time has come to abolish the death penalty worldwide. The case for abolition becomes more compelling with each passing year. Everywhere experience shows us that executions brutalise both those involved in the process and the society that carries them out. Nowhere has it been shown that the death penalty reduces crime or political violence. In country after country, it is used disproportionately against the poor or against racial or ethnic minorities. It is often used as a tool of political repression. It is imposed and inflicted arbitrarily. It is an irrevocable punishment, resulting inevitably in the execution of people innocent of any crime. It is a violation of fundamental human rights.
Desmond Tutu is a former archbishop of Cape Town and a Nobel peace laureate.