“The killer would carry the other man’s death in his psyche … In the flabby American spirit, there is a buried sadist … this method of execution would offer ventilation for the more cancerous emotions of the American public.” Norman Mailer (The Presidential Papers, 1964)
The above excerpt from the writings of the famous American novelist Norman Mailer might strike a chord with the recent event of death penalty which was executed inside the Tihar jail at 5:30 am on 20th March 2020 when the four convicts of the Delhi gang rape case were hanged till death. As always, such an incident had triggered the old academic and philosophical debates questioning the efficacy of a deterrent effect that such punishments might have against committing heinous crimes in the society.
This article proposes to traverse a different path of introspection. We endeavour to invite the readers’ attention to the ‘public behaviour’ and ‘celebratory applause’ that went unnoticed and which we as students found slightly disturbing.
In this piece, we look back at the public reactions surrounding death penalty cases in order to observe the popular reaction and sentiment that has surrounded the execution of death sentences in India and analyze the revelations that such theatrics make about our human nature and the hallowed concept of societal morality.
Theatrics of Execution: In the early 18th century death penalties were executed in public. The commoners would assemble in the town square to witness the barbaric death by guillotine. These horrific public spectacles found an audience who were both fearful and ‘sadistically’ enthusiastic about witnessing such gruesome events. Writing in 1964, Norman Mailer had made a similar observation in his book The Presidential Papers where he explained that the spectatorship of such public executions would in reality evoke the inner sadistic desires of the general masses who would vent out their darkest frustrations by hurling abuses at the prisoner and eventually bursting out in a celebratory uproar during the time of the execution.
The early 19th century, however, saw a changing perception in the concept of Morality along with the evolution in the idea of ‘Social Justice’ which in turn brought an end to public executions. Death penalties would, thereafter, be only executed within the four walls of the prison. The French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault in his famous work Discipline and Punish (1975) tells us that, one of the principal reasons for such a drastic change could be attributed to a feeling of ‘punitive sobriety’ which led to the advent of jail-houses and subsequently, ensured that the actual site of execution is detached from the spectatorship of the general public.
There is never an invisibility of a legal putting to death: The Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida gave a series of lectures in Paris and later in America between 1999 to 2001 where he elaborated upon his ‘abolitionist’ stand while arguing against the evils of death penalties. His seminars were subsequently compiled for further academic deliberation. In Volume I – Death Penalty (see page 25), Derrida argues that there is never an invisibility of a ‘legal putting to death’. Therefore, it seems that Derrida expressly disagreed with Foucault when he opined that, in reality, there never occurred a shift from the ‘visibility’ to the ‘invisibility’ of the execution of punishments. Instead, one could perhaps argue that the visibility has metamorphosed into a virtual form. Derrida explained that visibility in its virtualized manner gets constructed by another existing visibility of that event.
How is a virtualized visibility of the criminal act reproduced : The virtualized visualization of any criminal act ensures that the social condemnation that immediately followed the evil act is preserved in the minds of the public at large while producing a continued effect of deterrence towards a heinous crime.
This form of indirect virtual representation may be created by different mediums. For instance, there have been various films, documentaries and televised segments which have been inspired by the Delhi gang rape case and the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack.
A popular web-series inspired by the Delhi rape case (Photo credit: Netflix)
Similar media representations are available for other criminal cases where the convicts were finally led to the gallows. For instance, the Dhananjoy Chatterjee rape case was depicted in a Bengali movie and the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack saw itself being depicted in a Bollywood film, both of which were received by a rather curious audience.
The very existence of such variations of visual representations ensure that the fuming public rage against the convicted perpetrators is subconsciously maintained in the minds of the masses. This continues to evoke subconscious feelings of internal angst which is similar to the emotions that gripped the enthusiastic spectators of public executions in the past.
The story doesn’t end here. The public emotion is regularly and systematically rekindled with every progressing day towards the date of execution. With every passing day, we come across several images in preparation of the execution. Public curiosity is then fed with diverse information ranging from how the hanging noose is prepared to what is the societal background of the hangman.
The hangman who executed Dhananjoy Chatterjee’s death sentence displays the noose for execution. (Photo credit: Reuters)
The final outburst of this subconsciously stored angst takes place on the day of the execution. The 20th of March was no exception. In fact, it is reported that some people made a countdown till 5:30 am, the official time for hanging while others distributed sweets post the execution. Such incidents have not occurred for the first time and had also taken place during the execution of convicts like Afzal Guru in the past.
This celebratory mood of punishing the convict is precisely what the authors wish to invite the readers’ attention to. We submit that this righteous sentiment which was showcased by an eruption of celebratory uproars of vengeance at the death of the perpetrators does not, in any form, distinguish a person from the animal-like behavior they aim to condemn. Michel Foucault had warned us against this very sentiment in his book Discipline and Punish where, in the first chapter on Torture, he states that “It was as if the punishment was thought to equal, if not to exceed, in savagery the crime itself, to accustom the spectators to a ferocity from which one wished to divert them.”
Deterrence is entirely symbolic: In these recent months, we have heard arguments from all sides of the socio-political spectrum. In India, some Parliamentarians went as far as demanding that convicts be publicly lynched and castrated. In the United States, as political activist Richard Seymour writes in The Guardian, politicians are increasingly advocating for a harsher form of punishment while catering to popular sadism. Seymour argues that there seems to be a satisfaction that one derives by inflicting pain and humiliation upon the convict. He further states that, supporting such punishments only legitimise the State’s authority while the deterrence value it has is completely symbolic.
On the other side of this debate, we have heard sociologist Shreya Parikh, who argues (very convincingly) that hanging the rapists will not kill the structure that allows rape to occur. Thus, the public elation after the capital punishment is a false happiness as the very mind-set that caused the criminal act in the first place would still persist. Instead, the society must actively engage in formulating policies which ensure that women have an absolute agency over their lives. Similarly, women’s right activist Radhika Radhakrishnan argues that ‘knee jerk reactions’ advocating harsher punishments for rape are patriarchal in principle and harmful in practice. The zealous demand for capital punishment is an “indicator of a society grappling unsuccessfully with rape crimes”.
While the “retention” or “abolition” of Death Penalty is a separate debate, one perhaps cannot dispute the need of thorough introspection of our immediate reactions that a societal stimulus like capital punishment triggers. The evils of Patriarchy, Sectarianism or their equivalent cannot be uprooted by an occasional celebratory uproar of vengeance. We, unknowingly, must not let ourselves become the very individuals we abhor.
Foucault tells us, “It is ugly to be punished, but there is no glory in punishing” (emphasis applied). Therefore, while punishments may be an indispensable necessity for a civilized society, there is a need to recognize the fact that there is nothing worth celebrating in the very act of punishing itself.
Anirban Chanda and Sahil Bansal are fourth year law students at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat. The views in this article are personal and not endorsed by any party.