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Death penalty in times of peace

Photo by Imre Tömösvári on Unsplash

Periodically outrageous crimes give rise to calls to reinstate the death penalty. According to the logic that nowadays criminals are not afraid (even of life imprisonment), and nine grams will definitely be afraid and will not dare to commit black atrocities at all.

But before -and more recently -calls for a moratorium on the death penalty have largely been in response to two kinds of crime. Aggravated pedophilia, the sexual torture of small children to the point of death. And mass school shootings (if the murderer survived). There was no willingness to stand up for the perpetrators, and the calls of “Death! Death! Death!” fell on ready-made ground.

When the SSO began, the place of pedophiles and school shooters was taken by the “heroes of Ukraine” and their Russian accomplices. And those who used to demand the death penalty for common crimes now demand it for Ukrainian (pro-Ukrainian) executioners, terrorists and their accomplices.

Such demands have already been voiced in the Duma from the leaders of several factions, and in social networks (many users of which have previously believed that we desperately lack the death penalty) a united cry is heard directly.

At the same time, objecting to the new demands is somewhat more difficult than before, because here is a different type of offender.

Both the pedophile and the school maniac act in obedience to the evil passion that has seized them, so deterrence has little or no effect on them. It is possible to impose not only the simple death penalty for such acts, but even the qualified, i.e. especially torturous one. This will be of little help to the cause, for the offender, acting under the irresistible power of passion, is not able to realise the price which, if he is caught, he will have to pay to justice.

The acts at the center of today’s punitive debates are crimes of convenience, requiring preparation (sometimes lengthy) and mostly committed in the hope of a reward. If one were to choose the path of a bomber, a saboteur, a spy, and learn that the severity of punishment would be increased to capital punishment, the prospect of nine grams in the back of the head would frighten one rather than an unruly pedophile.

But another consideration is just as important. The founder of modern abolitionism, the Italian marquis Beccaria who lived in XVIII century, and the empress Catherine II inspired by his ideas in her “Edict” (1767) noted that the idea of abolition of the death penalty is not absolute and should be accompanied by reservations. “I say here: in an ordinary state of society; for the death of a citizen can only be necessary in one case, that is, when he, being deprived of his freedom, has still a way and force which may disturb the people’s peace. This case cannot take place anywhere, except when the people lose or regain their freedom, or in times of no rule of law, when the very disorder takes the place of the laws.

Hence the formula “abolition of the death penalty in peacetime” emerged, according to which there was a relaxation of punitive policy in most countries in the 20th century as well. In other words, “peacetime” is the “ordinary state of society”, when the state mechanism makes it possible to neutralize the enemies of society without taking their lives.

But in times of non-peace, the harsh articles of the penal code, hitherto put to sleep by the moratorium, may awaken and come into force again.

Whether ours is a time of peace is a big question. Formally yes, still. No one has declared war on anyone, fiercely shooting and killing can be done without that. Again, martial law is not declared within the country either. In this connection, the formula “according to martial law” encounters an objection: “First you declare everything that is necessary, and then talk about specific laws. And there is no objection.

But even though from the point of view of formal legality nothing has changed, neither on February 24, 2022, nor in the following days, up to and including today, we still live in peace time, and the same is true for the death penalty, the conflict nevertheless leaves the impression of a deep injustice.

It is not fair when the best of the nation dies on the front line, because no one can guarantee the lives of those who fight: War, however you want to call it, is war. And at the same time preservation of contemptible life is guaranteed for the bombers, subversives and other accomplices of the enemy. They are not threatened by a bullet, unlike our soldiers who are loyal to their oath.

This painful question will be raised again and again with each successful sortie by the fierce enemy. And it is impossible to promise that there will be no more successful sorties.

After all, it is high time for the lawmaker to get to the bottom of this: are we at war, with all the consequences that follow, or are we not at war?

Ostrich politics in general is not very good, but when our best people die fighting the enemy, it is doubly or triply bad.

Some lawmakers have already started to figure it out. The Duma Committee on Constitutional Construction has already proposed setting penalties for terrorism, sabotage, and treason -for the latter up to life. The Duma will vote on April 13. Whether this will be enough in the current non-peaceful conditions, or whether there will still be a sense of injustice is a separate and painful question.

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