This last week we saw another mass execution of foreigners by the Indonesian government for drug trafficking, and earlier in the week I listened to a debate on the Intelligence Squared postcast on the subject of "Should We Abolish the Death Penality." These events caused me to reflect on and reaffirm my opposition to the death penalty.
There is something nauseatingly banal about the ritual of judicial execution. The build-up to the Indonesian executions was accompanied by months of legal and political wrangling as the Indonesian President Joko Widodo dismissed appeals and stuck to his determination to make an example of the offenders. The condemned became unwilling celebrities as everyone connected to the case including the local police commissioner ensured they were photographed with those about to die.
The Intelligence Squared debate outlined various important arguments for and against the death penalty. Those in favour of it won the debate and I thought they made the better arguments - that some crimes and some criminals are so bad there is no valid alternative to putting them to death. Those against the death penalty made the usual arguments - that mistakes are made and innocent people are executed, and that the death penalty is applied discriminately. However, I think that neither addressed the key question in my mind - is the death penalty moral?
The question of the morality of state-sanctioned homicide cannot be answered without addressing the broader question of what is the moral role of the state. As a libertarian, my view on this is clear - the state exists only to protect individual rights. More specifically, the state exists to prevent the initiation of violent actions against individuals and their property. The corollary of this is that the state cannot morally initiate violence unless it is to counter actual or imminent violence against individuals. The cold-blooded killing of a criminal, however justified it may seem in terms of retributive punishment, does not satisfy this criteria.
The execution of drug traffickers by the Indonesian government is a particularly grievous example of immoral state-sanctioned killing. Trading in recreational narcotics does not, in itself, present an imminent threat of violence to anyone (leaving aside the fact that drug trafficking laws have driven the trade into the hands of violent gangsters) and therefore it should not be illegal, let alone punishable by death. The only real crime here was the murder of the traffickers by the Indonesian government.