The verdict in India has been handed down. In an event that has hit a raw nerve in the region and throughout the world, it has been determined that the four men found guilty of the most heinous sort of crime imaginable will be hanged.
This series of events has been, for me, a challenge to personal convictions that have evolved over the years. Though I have spent my whole adult life in Asia, I was raised in South Texas, an area where the death penalty was not only supported avidly, but seen as a part of the natural, divinely sanctioned order of things. In fact, I have even heard people I love and respect state that it is a real pity that lynching and mob justice have fallen by the wayside — though that opinion did diminish my respect for those who stated it. Being brought up as I was, it was not until I was rather advanced in my teenage years that it sank in for me that the term “liberal” is not inherently an insult, but actually suggests a certain generosity of spirit. This understanding came in quite handy when my own thinking grew enough, as a young adult, to allow me to take a stand against the death penalty that has won many a snide remark when the issue comes up in discussion with people from my hometown.
When the rape of the young woman in India came to my attention late last year, I knew that this trial would challenge the beliefs I had come to as an adult, because what happened to that young woman is horrific. Raped, kidnapped, and tortured — is there anything that could be more dreadful? The deep-seated misogyny that had to drive such an act, the sense of entitlement amongst men who saw this young woman as nothing more than an object to be used as they pleased, the cruelty with which the act was perpetrated and the deep rage that represents — all of these things scream of a level of depravity that is disturbing to consider. I have spoken out publicly against the death penalty for political figures and terrorists, but this was different. What these men did was not driven by some megolomaniacal drive to shape the world into one’s own private empire, it was driven by… what? That is something I cannot fathom. It is an evil I cannot understand and confess that, it being completely Other to me, I have no way to empathise with what must have been going on in the hearts and minds of those men.
So, when talk turned to the trials and sentencing of these criminals, I knew it would make me question my own conviction that the death penalty cannot be the answer. If there ever were to be someone I could sentence to death, surely it would be these men for whom I had no sympathy. I reasoned through it all over again in my own mind. I spoke with friends about it. I read. I followed the news. Intellectually, I found that I still stood against the death penalty, but I was not sure I would still do so on an emotional level on the day the conviction was announced.
It was announced today that they will be hanged. The moment I read it, I was relieved to find that I did not rejoice. I don’t know if it is a moral victory, but at least it gave me a bit of peace to know that perhaps the gap between my stated ideologies and lived ideologies has become just a little smaller.
The real test, of course, was not this one. The real test would have come if they had been sentenced to life imprisonment. Would I have felt some dejection over that sentencing, the injustice of the fact that the woman who was raped and tortured lost her life (and arguably would have even if her body had carried on surviving) but the men who did this to her would continue to live, even if it were in prison? Would I have perhaps even lamented the passing of the days when lynchings and mob justice would have carried out the death penalty regardless of the rule of law? And would I have lost a bit of self-respect in the process?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. I will, however, say a prayer today for the men who have been convicted, that they find a way to make peace with their maker before their penalty is carried out. And perhaps one day I will learn a deeper level of empathy that allows me to truly love my neighbour.