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Sense of fairness notably lacking

Published: 
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Archbishop oseph Harris delivers his sermon during Good Friday Mass at the Immaculate Conception, Port-of-Spain.

No death penalty and no licks in school. These were the Easter messages coming, in separate sermons, from Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph Harris and Fr Martin Sirju.

Archbishop Harris argued: “Jesus forgave and the calling for the death penalty is a sign of the lack of forgiveness and I know people will say it is the law of the land, but laws can be changed if we have the will to change them.”

Fr Sirju, in his turn, asserted: “If we live from young non-violently, then our society will become non-violent.”

Archbishop Harris also suggested that the growing gap between rich and poor is a key cause of crime, and this was a factor in criminals becoming younger. In fact, the rich-poor gap hasn’t increased significantly over the past 20 years, and the age of criminal cohorts has remained the standard 18 to 25 years old for most perpetrators. But the Archbishop’s point about violence flowing from the authorities is well taken.

In The Middle Passage, published in 1962, Trinidad-born Nobel Prize-winning writer VS Naipaul wrote: “To bring political organisation to the picaroon society, with its taste for corruption and violence and its lack of respect for the person, has its dangers . . . Change must come from the top. Capital punishment and corporal punishment, incitements to brutality, must be abolished.”

The linked premise here is that official violence exacerbates personal violence, including murder. Those who support capital punishment argue the opposite—that hanging is a deterrent to criminals. However, even if this is the case, executing murderers can only deter killers if executions are more probable than being killed on the streets. Since murders are averaging two per day in Trinidad, this means that not only would the number of arrests and convictions have to be much higher, but two hangings would need to be carried out every day. This would clear Death Row in less than two months, hence removing the supply of killers needed for the act of deterrence.

So some death penalty supporters go further and say that deterrence is irrelevant, instead arguing that death by hanging is a proportionate penalty for the crime of murder. This is certainly true as a purely logical argument; however, the argument also invokes the same psychology of revenge which is behind the majority of murders in T&T.

Fr Sirju went to the core of the issue when he noted: “People become violent because justice is not given to them.”

But for justice to be achieved requires not only efficiency on the part of all legal arms of the State, but also a sense of fairness that is notably lacking in our national culture. Instead, entitlement and the perception of being oppressed are the default attitudes of too many citizens, which they invoke to justify wrong-doing in their own minds.

In this context, it is somewhat ironic that Prime Minister Keith Rowley, who declared his staunch support for capital punishment just weeks ago, in his Easter message said that “during these challenging times, we too may be called upon to make sacrifices for the greater good of our nation.” As a politician, the sacrifice Dr Rowley would have to make is to risk losing the next elections by taking unpopular decisions. But, thus far, his administration has displayed no desire to institute politically risky policies for the long-term benefit of the nation.

Yet this is one of the key messages of the Resurrection story—that in great sacrifice may be found great rewards. Unfortunately, few persons in our society truly believe this.

“To bring political organisation to the picaroon society, with its taste for corruption and violence and its lack of respect for the person, has its dangers . . . Change must come from the top. Capital punishment and corporal punishment, incitements to brutality, must be abolished.”