Why the Delhi sentence is too much and too little

Why the death penalty seems like the easy, cowardly way out of a terrible situation
A protest against the death row for rapists in Delhi, in September. Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times

A protest against the death row for rapists in Delhi, in September. Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times
On 13 September, a Delhi court gave the death sentence to four men found guilty of December’s infamous rape and murder. The judge remarked that this “rarest of rare cases” was so “beastly” and “hair-raising” that death was the only possible punishment. Crowds cheered, people danced in the streets, and the word “closure” was bandied about. Despite some human rights activists speaking out against it, the predominant emotion was expressed by a columnist in the UK who wrote, “Hang ‘em high!”
Looking on, I felt a bit sick.
There is a collective feverish, titillated fascination at the prospect of executing the four men, and it reminds me uncomfortably of the feverish, titillated fascination associated with rape itself. There’s something very macho about it, and I felt oddly ashamed when I looked at the photographs of the men on my computer screen.
The state has no business executing anyone in the first place. It’s just barbaric, and only a few backward countries (India, Iran, the US…) still allow it. So I wouldn’t support the death penalty no matter what. In this case, it is particularly upsetting when I think about many of the emails I got when I wrote about my own rape. Emails from men in particular. “Don’t you think we should castrate them all?” “We should hang the bastards to death!” “Do you wish they had been executed?”
Actually, I don’t. I wish they’d been caught, tried, and convicted. I wish I could think about them stuck in jail having a really bad time. But it doesn’t even really matter what I wish. Justice is not about giving victims and families a vengeful thrill. Justice is about putting things right, and things are very wrong in our society when we attempt to fix the objectification, rape, dehumanization and murder of a woman with the objectification, dehumanization and murder of her murderers. What does this do but add to the sum total of violence and hate in our society?
Quite apart from my firm opposition to the death penalty in general, I find this one abhorrent because it feels like a convenient way to make an artificial distinction between Us (the good guys, the benevolent citizens) and Them (the evil twisted perverts who are beyond the pale and who stand outside civilized society). It is a convenient way to shuck off responsibility for the way we view women, the way we act every day towards our own sons and daughters, and the way we would have to admit, if we looked closely enough at the photographs of the murderers, that they look just like us. It’s going to take a lot of rope to hang everyone responsible for all the quotidian beastly and hair-raising acts to which we are all party every day.
Alice Munro, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, writes, “The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other.” Let’s not lose sight of that relationship, and use an act of vengeance to pretend it does not exist.
Perhaps, rather than add to the blood on our collective hands, it would be more useful to punish these men severely, and then turn our energies to the usual horde of cretins who applaud violence against women in the name of tradition. This horde includes A.P. Singh, one of the murderers’ defence lawyers, who proudly announced that he would burn his daughter alive if she went out with a boyfriend or had premarital sex. I know I’ve just made a case for acting civilized, but I hear things like that and I immediately want to smack his smug face and banish him from living in the same world as my daughter.
These four men who look just like our brothers and cousins are part of the fabric of our society, and if we think that hanging them high and doing a victory lap around the arena will make the problem go away, we are being delusional. What happens after the victory lap? We all feel satisfied that the ledger is balanced? Does killing the killers exempt us from doing the real work involved in repairing the society that produced them? They are part of us, those men, and killing them will not make that reality go away.
If someone raped my daughter, would I want him to die for it? Perhaps, but not at the hands of a government apparatus that we all know is flawed in every possible way.
Frankly, the death penalty seems like the easy, cowardly way out of a terrible situation. Easy for us, easy for those who die. If we want to be vengeful, let’s at least be creative about it: I’ll always remember my peace-loving mother saying, “Just give me 5 minutes in a room with them and a vat of boiling oil!”
I’m not defending the criminals. I know all too well the terror their victim must have felt. They committed a horrendous crime and they deserve to spend the rest of their very unpleasant lives enduring hideous suffering. But for all the horror I feel at their repugnant behaviour, I feel equal distaste at the thought of the many people who feel excited, and yes, titillated, at the thought of “hanging them high.” Hanging them high will diminish us all.
Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She will write a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.
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