In 1215 AD an important event in Western Civilization’s history occurred when a group of feudal English barons pressured King John into singing the Magna Carta. English law made a leap forward again in 1679 with the passage of the Habeas Corpus Act. Shortly after the English Bill of Rights was passed in 1689, in which was the first known use of the phrase “Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” It always stings my American ego a bit whenever I am reminded that many of the founding principles of the United States already existed in English law before our revolution.
Though the forbidding of “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” wasn’t originally intended to rid us all of the death penalty, it hasn’t stopped abolitionists from laying claim to the phrase by defining capital punishment this way. This was even a central point when the U.S. Supreme Court effectively put a moratorium on Capital Punishment from 1972 – 1976 with their Furman v. Georgia ruling. The 1960’s and 70’s seem to have been the golden age of abolitionists, as Canada’s last executions took place in 1962. Europe went this way as well. The last execution in the UK was in 1964 – France 1977. After the 1989 Romanian revolution overthrew the brutal communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, he and his wife were executed. Shortly after, Romania abolished capital punishment. Today, the only nation left in Europe where it’s not banned is Belaus, though executions are uncommon.
The frequent executions in Texas and a few other states today are a constant irritant to abolitionists, but Capitol Punishment in the U.S. seems to be in retreat yet again as some states work towards abolishing it, or just refrain from carrying out the sentence. Oregon hasn’t executed anyone since 1997, though there are many convicts on the state’s Death Row.
A quick glance at the world would make it seem as if most nations have moved beyond capital punishment; especially in Europe, parts of Africa and Latin America. While outright abolishment isn’t in place in most nations, it is either reserved for special circumstances, or executions simply aren’t carried out for complicated legal reasons or moratoriums that are in effect. In short, most nations these days don’t execute – or that is the illusion that has convinced so many of a vanishing Death Penalty.
A few years ago I watched the 2009 thriller La Soga on Netflix. The story takes place in the Dominican Republic, and is about a cop who works for an elite police unit executing problem criminals for the state. Though fictional, the film makes a statement about vigilante cops in the country that are quite real. What’s even stranger, is capital punishment has been abolished in the republic since 1966. The Dominican Republic isn’t the only country where this sort of thing is taking place.
In 2010 in Jamaica, a drug lord called Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke was being sought by the United States for extradition. The Jamaican government relented to U.S. pressure, but Coke was very popular with the people in his area. An all out police assault on the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood in Kingston took place, and many died in the fighting. In 2011, Mail Online did an article accusing the Jamaican government of dragging gangsters out of their homes and executing them. Some of this was linked to the assault on Tivoli Gardens the year before, but it also suggested this was a normal practice of the police. Jamaica technically has the death penalty, but hasn’t carried out a formal execution since 1988.
In the Philippines this last July, a group of police officers were under investigation for executing a criminal who sat at the wheel of his car with his hands behind his head. At least five officers were around the car when it happened, and most likely would have been able to cover it up if it wasn’t caught on video. The police in this case initially claimed to have killed three gangsters in a shootout, one of which was the person in the video. The Philippines abolished the death penalty in 2006 while under significant pressure from the Roman Catholic Church.
Brazil has a long history of vigilante cops. One of the most recent incidents was during a police strike in early 2012 in Bahia state. During the 12 day strike, active and former cops are believed to have carried out 30 killings. The victims were handcuffed and shot in the head. They were said to have all been young, black drug dealers who were causing trouble in the area. Brazil has not had a death penalty since the founding of the Republic in 1889.
While I wouldn’t want to stretch the definition of an execution to include people who are not actually captured, the extreme behavior of cops in South Africa can lend much to my point in this article. There the police have turned the shooting of troublesome suspects, and putting it down as justified into an art. As reported by the South African Times Live, one police Death Squad alone is credited with 45 kills over a three year period. South Africa abolished the death penalty in 1995.
I imagine that a desire by the U.S. government and others to avoid legal entanglements with every terrorist confronted has altered the way the War on Terror is fought. From targeting I.E.D. teams in the process of setting their traps, to drone strikes where we are conveniently unable to capture the enemy, to the raid that killed Bin Laden where it appears to many that capturing the Al Qaeda leader wasn’t really desired. I’m not pointing fingers, as it might just be logistically impossible to capture and put on trial in the U.S. every militant we run into. Some of the trials of terrorists conducted stateside have taken years, such as that of Zacarias Moussaoui. Do we blame the military for being heavy handed? or cite the inefficiency of our own legal system for forcing us to fight terrorists in a way that produces results? In WW2 there was no question what would happen to combatants captured out of uniform, or carrying explosives. While we don’t execute spies or saboteurs anymore, I’m not entirely sure our modern methods are leading us down a more gentle path.
Our methods are perhaps even more extreme when we are fighting Islamic Radicals by supporting proxy forces. In Jeremy Scahill’s documentary Dirty Wars, U.S. backed Somali militias, and their hunting of extremists on American kill lists is examined. One of the U.S. backed Somalian warlords interviewed by Scahill talked about executing captured foreign fighters. In Nigeria, unarmed U.S. drones have been helping in the fight against the dangerous Boko Haram terrorists by providing intel to the Nigerians hunting them. This becomes especially concerning when the Nigerian military is accused of carrying out atrocities.
So who is to blame for all this? Is it vigilante cops; the military, or the CIA for doing what it takes to get the job done? Perhaps it’s the bulky legal systems of modern democracies that seem to treat the idea of due process as some kind of intricate ritual, where a faerie magic called justice is conjured up. Everyone should agree though that the punishment is the justice for violent criminals or terrorists. The idea of a trial is supposed to ensure that the innocent are protected. Ask yourself what is more offensive, the state killing someone under the table, knowing there could be consequences for doing it, or an open system where society puts someone on trial and sentences them to death. For many, the answer is the latter, and we call these people abolitionists. One has to wonder though with all the evidence out there, if the Death Penalty is truly what is vanishing. It could be Due Process itself.