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The death consensus

The death consensus | Faisal Siddiqi

“Murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honour and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand.” — George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra.

In a country like Pakistan where there is hardly any consensus on any issue, a consensus, at least, seems to have emerged on death as a kind of panacea for numerous state and societal problems. Whether it is the excessive use of the death penalty as an expression of state authority or extrajudicial encounters as a solution to the problem of crime and terror, or the militarisation of the ‘war on terror’ in the tribal areas that is portrayed as an existentialist state necessity, or the vigilante justice perpetuated by the mob, or the violence of the religious militants, or parents killing themselves and their children due to economic and social deprivation, the celebration of death emerges as a common pattern.

With the government’s recent decision to completely lift the moratorium on the execution of the death penalty in all cases (ie terrorism and non-terrorism cases) and the lack of public opposition to it, let us examine the underlying reasons for the Pakistani state’s enthusiasm for the measure, especially in view of the fact that there is no historical or comparative evidence from any country to suggest that the death penalty substantially reduces either crime in general and/or terrorism in particular. This is irrespective of the argument that the execution of death row convicts may be justified in a few hardcore terrorism cases where the presence of the convict is an imminent threat to the state.

If there is no intention or capacity to deal with the causes of crime and terrorism, the only option left is to kill.

Rising authoritarian state: What does a state do when it has lost its monopoly over violence? What does a state do when it is not a welfare state nor does it have the intention, will or capacity to provide any economic, social and cultural benefits and services to its people? It addresses both these questions by creating the myth of ‘order’ and by eradicating disorder caused by crime and terrorism. In the absence of a welfare state, order is created by such a state through authoritarian means ie extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, large-scale arrests, torture, unending criminal trials and the excessive use of the death penalty, as well as through a vast network of authoritarian structures — unaccountable intelligence agencies, unaccountable civilian and military forces, internment camps and a failing criminal justice system.

In such an authoritarian state, the death penalty emerges as a key strategic tool because if there is no intention or capacity to deal with the causes of crime and terrorism or to rehabilitate or reform the criminal or terrorist, then the only option left is to kill these ‘very bad people’. The death penalty creates the perfect illusion that by killing all the criminals and terrorists, there will be a reduction in crime and terrorism.

But despite drawing room and hotel conferencing activism and Facebook or Twitter militancy of the human rights urban elite, the death penalty remains popular because it produces positive consequences for state power. Firstly, a state’s capacity to kill anyone, and at any time, is a classic way to re-establish the state’s monopoly over violence and, as a consequence, societal order. People love order but desire merely justice.

Secondly, the death penalty operates at two levels in Pakistan. At a de facto grassroots level, it is executed through ‘encounters’ and operations in the tribal areas, without due process but as a kind of direct justice against ‘very bad people’. At the formal level, people are hanged in jail after due process of a court system. What the lifting of the moratorium/ban on all executions has done is that it has created a perfect harmony in the execution of all death sentences, both at the extrajudicial and the judicial level. For now on, the state will engage in a policy of consistent killings.

Nawaz Sharif’s dream policy: What does an insecure government do that is constantly under threat from the military, presiding over a non-functioning state and a fractured society, and under severe financial crunch? What does a right-wing government do which has neither the ideological inclination nor any programme to deal with the causes of crime and terrorism through economic, social and cultural means?

It creates illusions and distractions. Both the Metro Bus projects and the death penalty create the illusion and distraction that this is a functioning government. The death penalty, of course, creates the powerful illusion of order and justice (justice, at least for the victims involved). It appeals to the people’s love for order in an era of uncontrollable and brutal violence. Moreover, order restored through the brutal exercise of state violence also appeals to people’s Freudian instinct for violence and revenge. Therefore, the death penalty as a penal policy acts as a substitute for social policy, and absurdly death becomes an answer to life’s problems like crime and terrorism.

Death convicts as non-humans: Once labelled as ‘terrorist’, ‘murderer’, ‘sectarian killer’, ‘Taliban’, ‘rapist’, ‘extortionist’, ‘dacoit’ etc, the convicts’ entire existence is reduced to the heinous act committed and no need is felt to understand the causes or to show humanity. State and society don’t want to face up to the issue that it is the kind of state and society constructed by the Pakistani ruling state and societal elite which provides the structural causes and context for individuals and groups to become criminals and terrorists. Also, it is easy to kill people if the overwhelming majority of the people on death row belong to the disempowered classes ie the poor, the politically or socio-economically excluded, whose lives are tragically trapped in crime, terrorism and religious extremism.

With a prime minister enamoured of the death penalty, with increased militarisation of the internal security policy, with an opposition obsessed with parochial priorities, with a human rights elite trapped in its own elitism and with a people traumatised by uncontrollable violence, Pakistan provides the ideal pitch, weather and atmosphere, for these games of death.

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2015

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