Published on Sunday, May 13, 2001 in the Toronto Star
Shadows of Sharia in McVeigh Execution
by Haroon Siddiqui
With the Timothy McVeigh execution postponed but still pending, I re-read Albert Camus and George Orwell, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, eloquent abolitionists all. But what proved more relevant, under the circumstances, was a grisly account of the first public execution carried out by the Taleban after its takeover of Afghanistan in 1996.
The condemned man in Kabul had murdered a pregnant woman and her three children during a botched robbery. His sentence of death was to be carried out in the soccer stadium. With the murmur of the crowd, the few reporters present couldn't hear his last plea, directed at the grieving husband who could, under law, forgive the killer but chose not to.
In planning to execute McVeigh and televise his death, albeit to a select audience, Americans are in some ways following the Taleban. There's no escaping the disturbing parallel, notwithstanding America's elaborate system of justice that provides a fair trial even to a McVeigh and grants him a stay of execution to ensure all his rights.
Americans will be equally loath to admit that they are also moving toward another form of justice they relentlessly decry - the Islamic sharia, at least the punitive versions practised in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, parts of Nigeria and elsewhere.
The sharia provides for capital punishment (a penalty proscribed in every Western democracy except the United States, and also enforced in such places as China, North Korea and Congo). The deed is often done in public squares. The McVeigh execution will similarly be well publicized, more so, given the mass media audience of millions.
The sharia also places great emphasis on the rights of victims. The 300 or so relatives of McVeigh's victims who will watch him die, via closed-circuit television, have won the same right as the grieved under Muslim law who also get the best seats in the house of punishment.
All that is missing from the American tableau is the privilege of the affected families to make the final call on whether or not to pardon the guilty. Under the sharia , that right rests entirely with them, not the state.
Those operating under the Taleban code of tribal conduct have the additional prerogative of executing the criminal themselves. That is what the bereaved husband in Kabul did, with a Kalashnikov.
It is not inconceivable in America, given the trend toward empowering victims of crime and/or their families, that they be handed the needle or empowered to throw the switch.
Victims' families now routinely campaign with right-wing politicians (Mike Harris and Stockwell Day among them); make TV appearances to recount their tales of grief; attend the trial of the accused; make "impact statements" before sentencing; and pronounce themselves dissatisfied with the lightness of punishment.
Missed along the way is a crucial point of law, as pointed out by Clifford Orwin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He wrote in the National Post that "justice supersedes vengeance only and precisely at the point where punishment is taken out of the hands of the injured. From then on, it is the offence against society that's punished, not the offence against the victim or survivors."
That used to be one of the key distinctions between "our" civilized law and "their" revenge-driven codes, a clash of values of the West versus the East.
To add to the irony, some of them have succeeded better than America in providing their citizens a life free of the fear of crime. Shopkeepers in the gold souks of Saudi Arabia leave their treasures unlocked as they walk away to the mosque upon hearing the call for prayers, five times a day.
Such a scenario is unthinkable for America, at any price. Short of chopping thieves' hands, American law-and-order administrations have tried many elements of retributive justice, only to end up with a jail population of 2 million; record spending on prisons, $40 billion a year; record number of executions, 705 since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated; and record numbers on death row, more than 4,000.
If a civilization reflects itself in law, then America has given us more questions than answers.
If witnessing the last gasps of the murderer would help bring "closure" to the nightmare of victims' families, who, exactly, should be entitled to a ticket to the show? Spouses? Children? Parents? In-laws? Neighbours?
Why not society at large? Why not a live broadcast for a national catharsis?
Doing so would make a spectacle of a sombre event. But isn't it already? At the carnival in Terre Haute, Indiana, bars and hotels have been packed for weeks, the enterprising have been peddling souvenir T-shirts and the journalists hawking a hot story. They will all be back no sooner than a new date is set for the execution.
Televising the execution would further debase America. But hasn't the august National Public Radio just aired audio clips of two executions from Georgia? Doesn't reality TV cater to the public's basest instincts, through Survival, Temptation Island, and video clips of cops bashing drug dealers and wife-beaters? Isn't the family viewing hour full of gratuitous violence?
Finally, it is argued that putting McVeigh on camera would make him a martyr. But hasn't he been showered with all the publicity he craves, and some more? Hasn't he been granted an even greater wish, that of having the state commit his suicide for him?
As the arguments over a public execution telescope into the larger debate on capital punishment, one feels grateful for being a Canadian.
Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus.
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