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Columns : The New Bahamian - Joseph Gaskins Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

Just Hang ‘Em! Right?
By Joseph Gaskins
Jul 22, 2011 - 8:21:07 AM

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Over the last few days I’ve been both metaphorically and virtually (for lack of a better word) surrounded by death. Sunday night I found out through Facebook (hence virtually) that someone I’d been acquainted with was killed in Nassau and that another person was gunned down shortly after, raising the murder count in the Bahamas to seventy-four. Apparently, almost simultaneously a friend of mine was involved in a carjacking in which his life was threatened and property was stolen. This too happened in Nassau. It seemed that all around me an ominous, billowing dark fog had descended and along with it the cries for justice to be served. In short, “It’s time to start hangin’ again!”  
This is my first attempt at articulating a position on capital punishment in writing…well, aside from a brief foray into the issue in my piece “ %^#@ the Christian Council…and Other Musings on the Place of Religion in a Democracy” for the Nassau Liberal blog. There, I suggested the then president of the Bahamas Christian Council (BCC) should perhaps reconsider his position on capital punishment given Christ’s teachings. But then again, what do I know about these things? In fact, maybe this is a good place to start because I’m actually not sure I do know anything about the Christian position on capital punishment. I’m not even sure Christians know the Christian position on capital punishment. And, given that we are repeatedly told we live in a “Christian nation” guided by “Christian values” this is of the utmost importance, isn’t it?  
I guess my confusion stems from what I see as a bit of Biblical schizophrenia when it comes to the issue of legitimized state violence—because that is what we’re talking about here: giving the state the right to employ an explicit form of physical violence against human beings. What I mean by Biblical schizophrenia is that, from my perspective at least, somewhere along the grand historical narrative of Christianity, God went from commanding Israelite soldiers to go into the neighboring villages and cities with the intent to kill every living thing—men, women, children and even livestock—to commanding apostles to go to every corner of the world spreading the good news of God’s love peacefully.  Now, I’d never want to suggest that God was sending mixed messages but perhaps you can see where this may cause some confusion.  
The lex talionis (Law of Retaliation) doctrine of Leviticus seems in direct conflict with the “turn the other cheek” doctrine of Christ in the New Testament and this is the kind dissonance to which I am referring. Far be it from me to challenge the infallibility of the Holy Word, but given that Christ saved Mary Magdalene from a makeshift jury of her peers with stones in hand, ready and willing, maybe we can chalk this up to a difference in messengers. And, given that Christ was the messenger, maybe there shouldn’t be any confusion about the Christian position at all. Personally, I tend to agree with Christ on just about everything…it’s the Christians I don’t get. But, if I had to pick a Christian to side with it would probably be MLK Jr. or like Mother Theresa, Bishop Desmond Tutu or someone. You know people who’ve helped to change the world—not a  BCC fat-cat—and they’ve all spoken out against capital punishment.  
If we’re being wholly honest here the religious confusion around this particular issue doesn’t really concern me. However, I figured it was likely a concern to some of you so I thought it important to broach the issue…that and I enjoy witty banter with fundamentalists. I am aware that two paragraphs in an article for a small column in the Bahamas won’t sway the Christian church en mass to embrace a non-violent posture. This is likely especially true considering the history of organized Christianity is inextricably tied to the justification of violence in the name of “righteousness,” “spreading the gospel” or the so called “will of God”. For me, the more convincing argument seems to be a socio-political one. What does it mean when we tell the state that it has to right to kill? And, if we are going to advocate for capital punishment it seems to me that it becomes important to ask, does it even work?  
At this moment I am asking myself, am I certain that I can trust our state with the right to kill? Maybe this question doesn’t matter, after all capital punishment is already the law, and the law is the law. But consider this: we also have laws that protect suspects from being brutalized during their interrogation. It is common knowledge, or at least a widely held belief, that Her Majesty’s Royal Bahamas Police Force has a tendency to question suspects…vigorously. Among other things, evidence tampering, cronyism, political maneuvering and a myriad of issues concerning corruption and collusion, all call into question the integrity of our justice system for me, if we can even call it that. The courts are in shambles and that, despite our propensity for pointing fingers, has very little to do with the Privy Council.  
Given these conditions I would bet that I—light skinned, middle class, educated, proper speaking man, with a closet full of suits, coming from an old Bahamian family with political connections and some very impressive lawyers— stand a better chance at avoiding the gallows than Mr. X—dark skinned, lower class, uneducated, with court appointed representation and a Haitian last name. Through a series of intersections such as class, skin color, education and familial background I’ve won leg up over Mr. X. Indeed, what will likely be perceived as my value to society has little to do with my character or the concept of justice, and more to do with where it is I’m from. Poor Mr. X.
Or, perhaps the reality is, given how much we can rely on our justice system for a fair outcome despite the numerous obstacles it faces (insert sarcastic tone here) it won’t matter if we’re guilty or innocent; we may both be up a chocolate colored creek, paddle-less.  You see, when I think about it this way, I feel less inclined to give the state the right to kill Mr. X or I. Instead, I’d like to suggest that we should attempt to better the system before we employ it as a conveyor belt to the hangman’s noose. I would imagine Christ himself would likely agree given how his unfair trial turned out.  
None of this matters though if capital punishment is effective! Let’s take a look at some of the countries that use capital punishment the most. Of the 41 countries that maintain the death penalty in both law and practice, China, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United States of America all top the list . I’d like to point out Bahamians aren’t particularly fond of the growing Chinese presence in the Bahamas and so it baffles me as to why they want to follow Chinese social policy so exuberantly, but that’s beside the point. China, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are all non-democratic states, some of which are governed by Sharia law (Islamic religious law). That the Bahamian Christian Council agrees with the social policy of dictators and fundamentalist Islamic clerics is revealing, to say the least.  
Honestly, if someone were to tell me at this very instance I was being shipped to Yemen, Iran, North Korea or Libya where capital punishment has supposedly made it safer, I would have trousers full of the same chocolate colored creek water Mr. X and I were (not) paddling through earlier. Iran and North Korea are members of the “Axis of Evil,” and Libya and Yemen are currently dealing with violent revolutions. I would go to the USA, but I would choose New York (where there is no death penalty) over Texas where they execute the mentally handicapped and a disproportionate amount of African American and Latino inmates; where killing a white person will sooner ensure you’re executed and killing a black person won’t .  See, that’s what happens when the state gets to choose who matters and who doesn’t.  
On whether the data confirms if capital punishment is or is not a deterrent, the jury is still out. Many of the experts agree that the research shows capital punishment is ineffective. Yet, this report from a study published in 2007 suggests that capital punishment might in fact deter crime in certain US states. Curiously missing, however, is data on how social policy like stricter gun control, stronger educational systems, availability of job opportunities, and efficient social welfare systems can also affect violent crime rates. What we do know is that for countries like Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, the United Kingdom and others—some of the safest in the world—it has been the hard work of crafting and enacting social policy which speaks to the value of life, not easily dispatching it, that has brought some relative peace.  
The evidence shows clearly that there is a correlation between increased crime rates and hard economic times and it is often lower-paid or unemployed undereducated men that turn to crime in these difficult situations . There is further evidence that suggests that increased education can significantly reduce incarceration rates . These are not excuses; this is the reality in which we live. Eliminating the symptom does not cure the disease and the fact is that our country is suffering from a nasty flu—criminality is just the runny nose.  
We know that our economy is reeling in the face of a worldwide recession. We know unemployment, especially for young men, is at a record high. We send these young men and women into a harsh, unstable world they had little part in creating, equipping them with few skills and no net to catch them when they fall. On top of this we’ve fostered a culture where one’s masculinity is tied to one’s ability to be tough, create fear, to show everyone that you’re not to be played with. We tell boys that a girl is his property in not so many words and we tell women that when he cheats it’s okay to “bust the windows out his car,” to destroy his property or worse. We show, by word and deed, in the law and from the pulpit, that certain kinds of people are not fit to live among us, that they do not deserve the same rights as everyone else and that they do not matter.

We’ve created an environment where the escalation of violence is entertainment, or more importantly required to maintain one’s honor. And then, when these social pressures converge—leading to crimes of passion, desperation or hatred—knowing full well the reputation of the police force and that our justice system is mess, we answer the homicidal conundrum with, “Hang ‘em!” For me, it just doesn’t seem right that the way to stop the killing is by starting the killing.

I cannot recall having someone close to me murdered and I cannot imagine how terrible it must be to experience such a loss. But I wonder if maybe before we call on the government to exercise the right to kill, we might ask them to fix a few things first…or perhaps it’s just easier to go on with the business of getting rid of the people that just don’t seem to matter. I imagine this opinion will not be popular but I don’t particularly care. Bahamians should be tired of taking the easy way out when it comes to our social ills because that is what got us where we are in the first place. It is far easier to build gallows to hang a man than it is to build schools that educate, a viable economy, a culture that values life and a society that takes care of its own. Stop being lazy.

Joey Gaskins is a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in Politics. He is currently studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he hopes to attain his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and go on to pursue a Doctoral Degree. Joey also writes for the Nassau Liberal  www.nassauliberal. webs.com . You can reach him at j.gaskins@lse.ac.uk ]


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