The ethical legitimacy of capital punishment is an emotional issue separating political camps and also nations. Both sides have good points, so the positions taken do not necessarily separate the idiots from the brainy, the blood-thirsty from the civilized or the resolute from the softie. While in individual instances these labels fit and as their mud sticks, they are habitually slung. This is the juncture when the keyboard tempts one to add to a debate in which nearly all has already been said. However, doing so would distract from a related issue that surfaced through recent news.
Let us begin by recalling an aspect of the argument. It is not the main cannon in favor of the eradication of the death penalty but certainly a large torpedo fired in its support. The abolitionists like to claim that capital punishment has an equally severe but humanitarian alternative: a life sentence. The practical implementation of capital punishment has produced a number of tragic embarrassments. And that was not only because the measure has an inherently dangerous inadequacy. However, as shall be argued later, abuses also occur in the application of life sentences.
News that has received only inadequate analytic coverage provoked this essay. In the forefront stand two cases that are before a parole board, respectively became the subject of a request for clemency. In both instances the fates of condemned (Communist) terrorists are at issue.
Here the background: In the 1960s in West-Germany it became clear to radical leftists that they cannot take power by becoming a majority in free elections. A response might have been to adjust their platform to rally a majority. Instead, the revealing reaction was the APO, the Extra Parliamentary Opposition. Later, as a step implied by the APO’s name was taken. The arrogant Leninist élite founded the RAF, the Red Army Fraction. The RAF carried the APO’s street violence to its logical, terrorist conclusion. The system the radical Left could not overthrow with ballots was to be destroyed by a political gang using other means. That was terrorism designed to strike the nerve-centers of a feebled democracy. The collapse of the edifice, once deprived of its supporting beams, was expected to follow.
Accordingly, in the Seventies blood flew in the streets and dramatic assassinations, kidnappings and plane-hijackings challenged democracy. Ultimately the “Bonny and Clyde” of German politics were apprehended. After exploiting the instruments that a democracy gave them to conduct their defense and to rally their prominent arm-chair supporters, the RAF’s surviving leaders landed in jail.
Here the narrative needs an addition. One of the RAF’s chiefs, a Monica Mohnhaupt was released in 1977. Thanking for the lenience she went immediately underground. With the goal to extort the release of incarcerated terrorists, Mohnhaupt reorganized the RAF to practice violence on an elevated level. She led the ensuing actions of the RAF’s “war” and frequently acted as its executioner-in-chief. Finally, however, in 1982 the RAF’s struggle ended when she got caught. As a consequence, in 1985 Mohnhaupt, now 57, got five times life and an additional fifteen years. Christian Klar, an accomplice also got five-times life and will become eligible for parole in 2009. The number of the years in jail get us to a new chapter of the story whose conclusion might already have occurred to the reader.
By some ways of thinking Mohnhaupt and Klar have suffered enough. Moreover, as a letter (Der Spiegel, 6/07) puts it, “Can a human being that has taken life atone? Thinking the Christian way we [emphasis added] must be able to forgive...” The prisoners as well as a vocal minority are now active to achieve two goals.
One of these is to reduce the punitive consequences of nine assassinations to a singe, ho-hum murder. Second, a long stretch behind bars is qualified as inhuman and unusual punishment. By this way of thinking, while originally the sentence might have fit the crime, with the passing of time the judgment became iniquitous. This is the case because the growing present suffering of the convict, whose life lacks fulfillment, outweighs the fading interests of the lost-in-the-forgotten-past victims. Therefore the central issue becomes the burden imposed by the time served and the (partially age related) estimated probability of a relapse. Additionally, but given this standard not surprisingly, it is argued that it is irrelevant for the decision on early release whether the convict (1) shows remorse, (2) apologizes to the victim’s kin, (3) has clearly broken with his past (4) cooperates to clear still unsolved homicides. In the RAF case at issue this is crucial as neither Mohnhaupt nor Klar have done any of the above. In general, the circles inclined to argue in favor of their release, like to claim in another context that prison purpose is resocialization (and not punishment or revenge). If this standard is applied then M&K have not adjusted to society, its norms and are therefore not rehabilitated to be returned to it.
While this was written a court has decided to free Mohnhaupt on parole. Klar’s request for clemency is before Germany’s President. It is safe prediction that, since Klar will be freed now, he will not have to serve till 2009 when the minimal time required would expire.
The discrepancy between the sentences and the time actually served – even in cases involving terrorism – is not a German problem alone. In Spain an ETA-leader’s case is getting attention who got 3,000 years in 1987 for 25 murders. For good behavior he was to be release after 18 years – a net saving 2982. In a new case, a court gave the still-inmate twelve years for issuing new death threats. A recent decision reduced the sentence to three years which means that the man will soon be free.
It is hoped that having shaken your head repeatedly and having lost your patience, you will still be in the mood to follow the writer to a brief conclusion. The hither presentation, regardless of calling attention to a scandal which could happen “anywhere”, was only meant to serve as the foundation for a general observation.
Let it be assumed that replacing capital punishment with life sentences leaves society with a sanction that serves its interests and justice adequately. By implication “adequate” means “equal to” or “higher than”. Additionally, let us ignore arguments that speak for and against capital punishment. According to the proposition, as a sanction a life in jail is to replace the taking of a life. A question arises at this juncture that every individual and also societies and their political classes must answer. Is a life sentence in lieu of death an honest equivalent once “life” in practice means fifteen years or reaching an age at which jail becomes unpleasant?
Not only the concrete cases presented suggest that, when “life” is presented as an alternative, not that is meant what seems to be claimed. Even if the diverse related issues are overlooked, ”life for fifteen-to-twenty years” is misleading and therefore dishonest. Unless, of course, by clarifying their position, the advocates make it clear that they mean not what seems to be implied, namely that “life” is “life time” but that they suggest instead “for a longer time” only. Society has a right and some, albeit not necessarily totally compelling reasons, to approve of long-term incarceration as an alternative to capital punishment. The writer’s complaint against the practice is only that societal consent for the abolishment of capital punishment has been secured by allowing the common man to believe that certain words will mean what they signify in their common sense context.