Monday, 29 April 2013


I cannot hurt you, or punish you, by making you dead. I can torture you, physically and mentally, before you are dead, not least with the fear of dying – the process, the moment, but not the result. I might kill you, not as injury or as punishment, but simply to be rid of you, to prevent you doing anything ever again.

Because once life is taken away we cannot miss it, to have made someone dead does not offend him; it offends those to whom he mattered.

I should not expect that killing you in response to your actions will deter others from doing what you have done and risking the same reaction. It might persuade those who would miss them to discourage such people from following your example, for capital punishment has a deterrent effect mostly on those who not only have people who love them, but who are accessible to that love. But people like that are not in any case generally inclined to commit actions that might warrant capital punishment.

If I want to hurt or punish you, I must find out what you value, separate you from it (if that is possible) and keep you alive in the knowledge of that separation.

If you have learned to love, I can hurt and punish you most severely by killing those you love. If you have not learned to love, you are secure from this punishment. But I will only inflict it if I have not learned to value what is just and to treasure what is innocent.

People long-time separated from what they value forget how to value anything, and thus – because valuing things is characteristically human – forget how to be human. Perhaps they are then as good as dead.

Imagine levels of punishment for heinous crimes:
  • Execution
  • Permanent separation from freedom and other good things, with the right to commit suicide at will, when despair has become unbearable
  • Permanent separation from freedom and other good things, with no right to suicide and every effort made to keep the prisoner alive, with any despair he feels at his separation.
Now imagine adding to the latter two systematic reminders of the confiscated good things, enough to tantalise, but not enough to fully enjoy: controlled family visits, controlled access to television. Which of the five punishments is the least cruel alternative? Which is the one we generally employ? Why?

People who value only what they can be separated from are always ultimately vulnerable, and to be vulnerable is to have a reason to be fearful.

If you kill me, you will prevent me doing anything further to affect you, and you will put me beyond all feeling, as much beyond pain and regret as beyond satisfaction and love. I might even be grateful to you, except that before I die I will worry about how whatever I value will fare after my death. If my legacy is secure or non-existent, even that may not worry me as I approach death.

If there comes a time when I have lost all the separable things I value, I may survive by valuing what I am confident cannot be taken from me. If I apprehend that what remains of what I value might yet be taken away, I may lay down my life while I still have something to value. That might include the capacity to lay down my life.

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