Solitude is a restless quiet place. It is no haven of profound revelations. Solitude sets in when we actively and selflessly remain in a state of flux. Nothing comes of it but questions and sleepless nights. Maybe that is the reason we avoid it like the plague, operating constantly in action mode. I, for one, am certainly guilty of it. Albert Camus has been my companion this past week and he has ensured that I remain both still and troubled. I have been reading the essay Reflections on the Guillotine, which he co-authored with Arthur Koestler.

We live in times when the fear of death has engulfed the human race, when an unseen agent is posing a threat we haven’t confronted in a century. We are terrorised, afraid for our family and friends. Suddenly, the future seems uncertain. At this moment in time, reflecting on our own conscious act of lawful killing, or should I call it “murder”, as Camus does, is chilling indeed. Just as we were entering lockdown and the numbers of the dead were trickling in from across the globe, India executed four men convicted of the horrific 2012 Nirbhaya rape.

I know I am treading on very sensitive territory when I refer to this specific case, but how can I not? Anyone who has read Camus is infected by his courage and plain-speaking, even if only momentarily. He argues that law must not be revenge or retaliation, nor should it succumb to the baseness of human nature. If anything, it needs to recognise the passion-ridden imbalance intrinsic to our being. No law, therefore, should ever be absolute or irreversible. Law ought to be a humane ethical compass, one that acknowledges the disturbing inner voices hidden deep within.

We are a country that has written into its book of consciousness the state’s right to take away someone’s life in the “rarest of rare” cases. Death is common to everyone, but what justifies the right to extinguish the life of another? How is it possible to defend the hanging of a person till his neck breaks and legs stop shivering, or tying him to a chair and waiting until electricity consumes his body, or injecting him with a lethal chemical that numbs him to death? What justifies the condemning of a person to die, not once but twice. Prisoners have been known to spend decades on death row, awaiting extinction. As Camus puts it:

“As a general rule, a man is undone by waiting for capital punishment well before he dies. Two deaths are inflicted on him, the first being worse than the second, whereas he killed but once. Compared to such torture, the penalty of retaliation seems like a civilized law. It never claimed that the man who gouged out one of his brother’s eyes should be totally blinded.”

— Albert Camus.

What then of those who suffered at the hands of that criminal? Does the death of the perpetrator erase the pain or loss? Closure is the word that is often paraded to make a case for the death penalty. And the closure they seek is retributional homicide. This is an understandable emotion. But passion and sentiment cannot determine the shape of law. Principles of human rights and natural justice are what societies must turn to for guidance.

Of late, we have been witnessing public celebrations when death sentences were executed—and, sadly, for extra-judicial killings as well. A sentence that claims to be putting an end to pain, only opens up harsher wounds, arousing baser instincts. Truth be told, while we are still dealing with revenge, justice is nowhere in sight. The question we are asking is about the very nature of justice itself. Does the death sentence suck out of life that one element that keeps us human: compassion? Not compassion an individual trait, but as a living principle that ought to inform every nook and corner of society.

It is important to point out that research down the decades has shown over and over that it is the effectiveness of the legal system to ensure justice – not dangling the death penalty as a punishment –
that acts as a true deterrent. As for the argument that the death penalty is an effective deterrent, let us then, like Camus brusquely asserts, make executions public so that it can effectively play that role. Let us not hide it within the four walls of our gallows, a task to be hurriedly carried before dawn sets in.

I leave you with Camus’s description of his father witnessing an execution:

“Shortly before the war of 1914, an assassin whose crime was particularly repulsive (he had slaughtered a family of farmers, including the children) was condemned to death in Algiers. He was a farm worker who had killed in a sort of bloodthirsty frenzy but had aggravated his case by robbing his victims. The affair created a great stir. It was generally thought that decapitation was too mild a punishment for such a monster. This was the opinion, I have been told, of my father, who was especially aroused by the murder of the children. One of the few things I know about him, in any case, is that he wanted to witness the execution, for the first time in his life. He got up in the dark to go to the place of execution at the other end of town amid a great crowd of people. What he saw that morning he never told anyone. My mother relates merely that he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to talk, lay down for a moment on the bed, and suddenly began to vomit. He had just discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrases with which it was masked. Instead of thinking of the slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that quivering body that had just been dropped onto a board to have its head cut off.”

— Albert Camus.

Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.