On the death of Van Tuong Nguyen, and the Death Penalty

01 December 2005
More on the pending execution of Van Nguyen.
Before I go on, I'll just say, in relation to an earlier discussion in the comments, I'm not seeking here to explore the international politics of the situation. This is my emotional response, not an analysis of international law. Anyway...

This morning on the front page of The Newcastle Herald, there was an "Execution Timeline" outlining how Nguyen will spend his final hours, until 9am AEDT tomorrow (6am Singaporean time, 10pm Thursday GMT, 5pm Thurs EST in the U.S.) when the noose will be placed over his hooded head, and the trapdoor beneath will be released. 30 minutes later, a doctor will check for a pulse before declaring death.

That's one of the things which has shocked me so much about this - how cold it all seems. When you hear a statement like "...and lawyers say it now looks all but certain that Van Nguyen will die tomorrow", well that seems utterly chilling. Yes murder is a terrible thing. But to have it out front like that - that a person will die, tomorrow, not because they're old and sick and doctors say that there's no more they can do, but a healthy, young man due to a deliberate, planned, methodical decision of the state - to me that is just the worst of humanity, far more barbarous than anything any individual could do.

EDIT - And then that odious Piers Akerman writes bullshit like this (I will not excuse the language).

In a sad coincidence, the US is now about to conduct it's 1000th execution since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976. What you may not be aware of are the circumstances which led to the US re-introducing capital punsishment. It was not due to any public out-cry for re-instatement, nor to the election promises of a politician on a law-and order platform; rather, it was the actions of one insignificant armed robber, Gary Gilmore, who would now be forgotten by all except the families of his victims, if not for one thing: Gilmore did not appeal his death sentence. The US Supreme Court had ruled in the 1960s that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment, so even though death sentences were still handed out in courts at the time, they were automatically commuted to life imprisonment on appeal. Gilmore chose not to appeal (his psychiatrists unsucessfully tried to use this as proof of suicidal behaviour) and thus faced a firing squad. And capital punishment was back in action in the US.

Of course, what I've just written in a very simplified account of the circumstances behind Gilmore's case and the re-introduction of capital punishment; to read more, follow the links. But consider this: The US first abolished the death penalty during the same era as most other "first-world" countries, and today is the only "western" country that retains it. It was re-introduced, not because of a public call for it, but because of the possibly unbalanced actions of one petty thug. 998 others have been executed in the US since then, and has a single life been saved due to the death penalty acting as a deterrant? I won't go into that sociological debate now.

I'll be honest. Until a few years ago I did support capital punishment for "worst-type" offenders. But then I read a magazine article, interviewing the families of Oklahoma City bombing victims ahead of the pending execution of Timothy McVeigh. Most, of course, wanted him to be executed. But I'll never forget a comment made by a father whose daughter was killed in the explosion. The father said of Mc Veigh:

"If I am to go on with my life, I need to be able to forgive him. And to be able to forgive him, I need him to be alive."
Would that all humanity could show such grace.


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