Vantage point

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The IC 814 Fallacy

I am opposed to the death penalty. In all circumstances and situations, no matter how evil the perpetrator. This draws me into occasional debates (the latest triggered by the Troy Davis execution) with my friends who support the death penalty, at least in the rarest of rare cases.

This post is not about why I believe the death penalty is wrong. Rather, it is to address a fallacious argument that pops into death penalty debates among Indians with predictable regularity - the IC 814 argument. This argument typically unfolds as follows. A supporter of the death penalty says that executing the rarest of rare cold blooded murderers protects society from likely repeat offenses. To which my answer is, lifelong incarceration in a secure prison could protect society from the murderer just as well. The counter-point then is, ah, but what about an IC 814 type situation?

For those who came late, IC 814 was an Indian Airlines plane hijacked by Pakistani terrorists in 1999, demanding the release of three dangerous Pakistani terrorists in Indian custody. The hijackers killed one passenger, and threatened to kill all others unless the three terrorists were released. The Indian government gave in to pressure from the hijacked passengers' families, and released the terrorists. So the IC 814 argument in support of the death penalty, at least for terrorists, is that if we incarcerate terrorists without executing them, their supporters may threaten or kill more people to secure their release. That's why convicted terrorists like Ajmal Kasab should be executed.

I find this argument deeply fallacious, perhaps the most flawed argument that a supporter of the death penalty can make.

The first and biggest flaw in this logic is the assumption that terrorists' supporters will only carry out an act of terrorism to negotiate their release, not to seek revenge for the execution. In fact, a follow-up act of terrorism is much more likely to be motivated by revenge, considering that the stated objective of almost all terrorist acts is retribution.

Another flaw is that when you provide prevention of possible murder by someone else as grounds for killing the convicted, the whole logic about the validity of the death penalty goes for a toss. Because you're implicitly saying that the convict's own acts or potential to himself kill again is secondary to what someone else may do. The argument is thus very utilitarian, driven by convenience or precaution against something the convict himself possibly cannot do. Utilitarian or convenience based arguments are rather hollow in justifying execution, don't you think?

If preventing the headache of hijacks or hostage-takings is such a strong motivation, why can't it be utilized against people who haven't committed murders? In the 70s, when the Janata government arrested Indira Gandhi, two men hijacked a plane and threatened to blow it up unless she was immediately released from prison. The aforementioned argument implies that Indira Gandhi should have been executed to prevent such hijackings by her fanatical supporters. There have been other hijackings demanding the release of jailed individuals who had never killed anyone. Should these individuals be executed because their supporters are crazy enough to threaten others for their release?

I am sure any reasonable person's reply is, no, they shouldn't. Because it is absurd to kill someone as a precautionary measure against something someone else might do. The same is then true regardless of what the jailed individual's crime is - fraud or corruption in the case of Indira Gandhi, or cold blooded mass murder in case of Ajmal Kasab. Argue the merits of executing someone on the basis of what THEY have done, not what someone else MIGHT do.

There are many cogent and respectable arguments in favor of the death penalty that I may not agree with, but understand where they are coming from. The IC 814 argument however, is just fallacious and wrong.