Monday Horror Renews Debate on (and Thirst for) Capital PunishmentThe satisfaction of bloody retribution notwithstanding, capital punishment is the lazy way out, as it doesn’t require us to address the real issues
Once again the crowds were calling for blood on Monday after an individual decapitated a four-year-old girl with a meat cleaver in Neihu, Taipei. The random act of incomprehensible violence has re-energized those — a majority here — who support capital punishment and could turn into a challenge for the incoming Tsai administration that is far less amenable to maintaining the death penalty. Although anger is perfectly understandable under such circumstances, Taiwanese society cannot afford to let hot emotions dictate how it deals with such matters; cool, analytical minds must prevail in such trying times.
The truth of the matter is that capital punishment doesn’t work, at least not if it is regarded as a means to deter heinous crimes. Individuals who butcher toddlers in cold blood in front of their mothers do not operate under the rational, cost-versus-benefit analysis that governs the rest of us. The morals (variations of “thou shalt not kill” that exist across civilizations) and instinct for self-preservation that make killing another human being so abhorrent to ordinary people do not register with psychopaths who either do not comprehend the consequences of their acts or simply do not care. With them, fear of retribution doesn’t act as a check on their actions.
The same can be said of the clinically insane, whose mental imbalance means that they are not legally responsible for or aware of their acts, which are committed in a state of severe nightmarish delusion. That is why in many countries such insane individuals, after professionals have established their status, are not executed for their crime.
That, of course, assumes that support for capital punishment stems from a belief in its deterrence value. Already the mother of the young victim yesterday said, with astounding composure given the circumstances, that this doesn’t work. Still, there are others who, while admitting that the deterrent value of capital punishment is limited, nevertheless support the death penalty, either for the brief satisfaction that such retribution (“public bloodlust”) will give them (and presumably the families of the victims) or because they do not believe that taxpayers should spend money supporting the perpetrators throughout their lifelong incarceration.
The more fundamental problem, in my opinion, is that the death penalty engages us in a slippery slope. How much evidence is necessary before a court can decide with enough certainty that a criminal is to be executed? How can we be certain that the chain of evidence wasn’t tampered with or planted in order to protect powerful or politically connected individuals? What of the impact of trial by the media, which in the present case has made a spectacle of public indignation, spearheaded by members of organized crime who physically assaulted the perpetrator on his way to the police station? Or, as we saw with the current administration when it was in the depths of a political crisis, what do we make of expediency, when a government ostensibly uses executions to appease or distract a restive population, to bolster its popular support, or to attack its political opponents?
All these questions suggest that the problem with capital punishment lies not with the clear-cut cases but rather in the many others where we simply cannot be sure that an individual is guilty. And once we systematize the death penalty and make it a normal course of action, we open the door to future abuse. And mistakes. There have been several cases over the years where individuals were executed for crimes that they very likely did not commit, or using evidence that came from dubious sources (e.g., Chinese law enforcement).
The satisfaction of bloody (or chemical) retribution notwithstanding, capital punishment is the lazy way out, as it doesn’t require us to address the much more complex issues that gravitate around the matter. And as long as we do not address those, other horrible crimes such as the one that was committed on this sunny Monday morning will happen again, and again, and again, and the only thing we will accomplish is to perpetuate this cycle of death.
Two main and highly complex issues need urgent addressing. The first one is Taiwan’s legal institutions, where “procedural confusion,” as Jerome Cohen and Chen Yu-jie wrote in 2010, has undermined the legitimacy of executions. In its current state, it is very difficult to put our faith in the integrity of the legal system here, and until this has been resolved the Ministry of Justice should not have the ability to decide on the greatest human right of all, and that is the right to life. We should also add that Taiwan currently does not have a life without parole system, which if implemented would at least ensure that there exists an alternative to the death penalty which also ensures that someone who is a danger to society will not be released at some point.
The second issue is mental health. Mental hospitals and institutions in Taiwan are severely underfunded, with little follow-up after treatment. Many individuals who require help are left to wander alone in daytime and recuperated at dusk, either by the institution or the family. Moreover, mental illness is very much stigmatized in Taiwan and families will sweep the individual in need under the carpet, as admission would constitute a loss of face. In many cases, this means that the individual in question will not receive the help that he or she needs to get better, or at least to manage the condition. Based on the information that has emerged since yesterday, there is every indication that Wang Ching-yu (王景玉), the young man who murdered the toddler on Monday, fits that description.
The easy way out is to call for his blood and take solace in his execution; the more difficult, but in the end far more constructive, path would be to take an honest look at mental illness and the systemic failure in Taiwan to provide proper care and monitoring for those individuals, a tiny percentage of whom will, in extreme cases, turn into a danger to society.
And one last thing, which under the circumstances we can regard as a positive note: we are probably lucky that Taiwan has strict gun control laws, as video footage shows that the perpetrator wandered into a school before being chased out by an alert teacher. Had he walked in not with a cleaver but an assault rifle, it is very likely that yesterday’s horror would have been far, far worse.
J. Michael Cole is the editor-in-chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, and an associate researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. The views expressed in this article are his alone.