Death wish

Manny Pacquiqo and Rodrigo Duterte
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Boxer Manny Pacquiao, whose fists made him a part-time, occasional senator of this unfortunate Republic, says he’s going to rush the restoration of the death penalty through a bill in the Senate by the end of the year.

He’s been campaigning for it both in support of his own views as well as his patron President Rodrigo Duterte’s preference for it as a supposed deterrent to crime. Mr. Duterte is on record as saying that the method of execution he favors is hanging, because he wants it to be as painful and as inhumane as possible on the mindless assumption that it will frighten murderers, rapists, kidnappers, drug traffickers and other savages into abandoning their lives of crime.

Pacquiao says he’ll hold hearings on the proposed bill restoring capital punishment to determine whether the public wants it revived, 12 years after it was abolished in 2006 during the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo presidency.

In that year, now House of Representatives Speaker Arroyo put the Philippines in the list of over 100 abolitionist countries that had banned capital punishment by convincing Congress to limit the maximum penalty for crimes to life imprisonment. Her police and military goons committed over 2,000 extrajudicial killings during her problematic nine-year watch as president. But Arroyo had the death penalty abolished because she’s supposedly devoutly Catholic.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines has long been opposed to the death penalty. Theological issues aside, those innocent of the crimes they’re accused of could be condemned to death because of the well-known inefficiencies and partiality for the rich and well-connected of the so-called justice system.

Pope Francis recently declared the death penalty unacceptable as punishment for any crime not only because even the worst criminals are worthy and capable of redemption, but also because it detracts from human dignity. He has also urged the faithful to work for its worldwide abolition.

The Pope’s unequivocal opposition to the death penalty — and reversal of Catholic doctrine, which previously allowed capital punishment for certain crimes — has been hailed by human rights groups. They still believe that the abolitionist trend is irreversible despite continuing executions in the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, and in Asia, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, among other countries.

Not a Catholic but a born-again Christian, Pacquiao has not allowed his alleged devotion to interfere with his death penalty advocacy — or, for that matter, with his loyalty to Mr. Duterte, whose tirades against Christianity, the Bible and God Himself have not diminished but have even intensified.

Pacquiao cites the Bible often to support his death wish for those convicted of what are by now well-known in these parts as “heinous crimes.” He has even challenged the Pope’s interpretation of Scripture.

The Bible does mandate death for a long list of offenses, among them murder, bestiality, kidnapping, witchcraft, sorcery, incest, adultery, disobedience to parents, blasphemy, and even homosexuality. But that’s in the Old Testament, a text archaeologists believe was written some 3,000 years ago. Things have changed much since then, among them the character of societies, concepts of what constitute criminal behavior, and humans themselves.

The changes that have since taken place certainly argue against imposing the death penalty on homosexuals and those who disobey their parents — or who’re accused of witchcraft and sorcery in such benighted countries like the Philippines where one can always find someone who believes in such nonsense. Pacquiao and his ilk nevertheless think nothing has changed in the last three millennia of human history.

Despite Jesus Christ’s message of redemption and forgiveness — and some scholars’ claim that He was in rebellion against Roman oppression — the New Testament does recognize the supposed “right” of government, which at the time was the Roman empire that had dominion over the Jewish homelands, to execute transgressors through a number of means including crucifixion.

But to argue for the use in this century of methods of governance that might have been appropriate when societies were less developed ignores the thousands of years of accumulated knowledge that have led to humanity’s better understanding of itself, society, and the world. That is why Pope Francis’ declaration against the death penalty acknowledged the advances in human knowledge and society that have transpired since Moses’ and Christ’s times.

State-sponsored murder has since been found to be of little use in preventing crime. And despite Mr. Duterte’s contrary claims, even some of the worst criminals have redeemed themselves. The impartiality and efficiency of the justice system in other countries has also contributed to the success of efforts to reduce criminality.

In the US, 31 states use various methods such as lethal injection and electrocution to execute criminals guilty of certain crimes. But no evidence has been found to prove that the death penalty deters crimes. Behavioral psychologists say that few of those who do commit them think of the consequences. Spouses who kill their partners out of jealousy, for example, very seldom worry about being put to death when they commit such crimes of passion.

There is also the fact that the inefficiency and anti-poor bias of justice systems such as that of the Philippines can lead to the execution of innocents once the death penalty is in place. In the US itself, some of those executed have been found to have been wrongly convicted as more reliable means of establishing guilt or innocence, such as DNA testing, have been developed. While a finding of guilt can change, death is of course permanent and irrevocable.

As compelling as these truths about the perils of restoring the death penalty are, what is even more crucial is the context in which its proponents are seeking its return. Current Philippine realities — such flaws of the justice system as police incompetence, corrupt prosecutors and judges, and the vast gap between rich and poor that prevents the latter from hiring competent lawyers — will make sure that once restored, the death penalty, like the anti-drug and “tambay” campaigns, will be similarly against the poor. It is mostly from the destitute that many of those accused of wrong-doing who have been wrongly convicted and are languishing in prison are sourced, because they could not afford the services of competent lawyers, were ignorant of their rights, and/or were manipulated, coerced or tortured into confessing to crimes they did not commit.

There is also the distinct possibility that as the Duterte regime’s policy of killing as the first and last solution to crime continues, the restoration of the death penalty will only add to the already high death toll that is ravaging the poorest communities and leaving in its wake scores of widows and orphans whose lives have become even more difficult.

But there is hardly any doubt that like the death-dealing officials that rule them, most Filipinos favor capital punishment rather than competent police work as the solution to crime. There’s also the Pacquiao factor; most Filipinos’ love for the boxer includes a readiness to blindly believe whatever he says about public issues no matter how ill-informed.

The Sunday Catholics of this vale of tears ignore both the teachings of the Church the rest of the week as well as the incontrovertible truths about the folly of adhering, in this 21st century, to the Old Testament Mosaic law that mandates the loss of a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, and a life for a life. Pacquiao and his regressive company in Congress and Malacanang will almost certainly get their death wish.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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