10 October: For Those on the Pay-roll of Death
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. I am not on his pay-roll. I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies either Edna St Vincent Millay
10 October is the International Day Against the Death Penalty. Since the end of World War II, there has been a gradual abolition of the death penalty with the rather obvious recognition that death is not justice. In some countries, executions have been suspended in practice but laws allowing execution remain; in other cases, there has been a legal abolition.
The death penalty as carried out by the State is still practiced in a small number of backward countries, basically less than 10 of the 192 members of the United Nations. The top five in the number of legal executions in 2009 are China (over 1000, not all are reported so the number is an estimate made by Amnesty International from press reports), Iran (over 388 – again not all may have been reported), Iraq (120), Saudi Arabia (69), the USA (52), then Yemen and Sudan.
In the USA, there have always been people against legal executions. Unfortunately, they are rarely elected to legislatures. The clear words of the American poet Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) have been a credo for those who have opposed executions on moral grounds:
“This is a man
he is a poor creature
you are not to kill him
this is a man
he has a hard time
upon the earth
you are not to kill him.
There are those who also oppose the death penalty on the practical grounds that it has little impact on the rate of killings in society.
However 10 October can also be a day to oppose all organized killings. In addition to State-sponsored official executions, often carried out publicly or at least with official observers, a good number of countries have state-sponsored “death squads” — persons affiliated to the police or intelligence agencies who kill “in the dark of the night” — unofficially. These deaths avoid a trial which might attract attention or even a “not guilty” decision. A shot in the back of the head is faster. The number of “targeted killings” has grown. In many cases, the bodies of those killed are destroyed and so death is supposed but not proved. This is what the United Nations calls “enforced or involuntary disappearances.”
There is also a growth in non-governmental targeted killings. Attention has focused recently on the drug-trade-related deaths of Mexico’s “drug lords”. These groups of organized crime have many of the negative attributes of states. Their opponents are designated for killing and executed by those on the pay-roll of death. These groups are not limited to Mexico. In addition, there are a good number of countries where non-governmental guerrilla groups exist and carry out executions.
Thus our efforts against executions need to be addressed both to governments and to those state-like non-governmental armed groups. The abolition of executions and the corresponding valuation of human life are necessary steps to building a just society.
The “marching orders” for those working for the abolition of executions remains the letter written by B. Vanzetti on the eve of his death to Judge Thayer who had condemned Sacco and Vanzetti, “If it had not been for these things, I might have live out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us —that agony is our triumph.”
Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens