Killing In The Name Of …


To exterminate, or not to exterminate? For many governments of our so-called enlightened age, the answer is: have technology, use it. JOHN HARTIGAN goes on the warpath against state-sanctioned killing in all its forms …

What is our attitude to killing?

Do we justify killing by claiming the victims deserve to die? Are we indifferent or plain hypocrites who sanction one form of killing but not others? What is it that determines our attitude to taking life?

Throughout history we humans have demonstrated a propensity for taking life in ghastly forms and numbers. In this, our so-called enlightened age, countries legislate death penalties by hanging, shooting, lethal injection, electrocution or by gassing. In former years more exotic forms of execution were popular:

  • Strangulation.
  • Boiling.
  • Burning. Very popular with religious zealots.
  • Crucifixion. Common in Roman times.
  • Death by a thousand cuts. Ancient China.
  • Decapitation. France and Japan.
  • Disembowelment. African tribal custom.
  • Drawing and Quartering. Europe, particularly Merry England.
  • Exsanguination. Draining the blood. Pagan sacrificial method, notably South America.
  • Iron maiden. Common form of execution in Ancient Greece.
  • Keelhauling. Very popular with the British Navy.
  • Stoning. Biblical favourite.
  • There are many more to numerous to mention.

In Amnesty International’s annual report on judicial executions, 25 countries in 2004 executed 3,797 people. Nine out of ten of those took place in the Peoples Republic of China. American political activists claim a much higher figure than Amnesty International:

“Every year China has nearly 10,000 death penalty cases that result in immediate execution. That is five times more than all death penalty cases from other nations combined.”

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, quote on their website the following figures for the twelve countries with highest ratio of death penalties:


  1. Peoples Republic of China / 3,400+ / 260
  2. Iran / 159+ / 230
  3. Vietnam / 64+ / 77
  4. USA / 59 / 20
  5. Saudi Arabia / 33+ / 130
  6. Pakistan / 15+ / 9.4
  7. Kuwait / 9+ / 400
  8. Bangladesh / 7+ / 5
  9. Egypt / 6+ / 7.9
  10. Singapore / 6+ / 140
  11. Yemen / 6+ / 30
  12. Belarus / 5+ / 48

Most countries use capital punishment to punish crimes of murder; treason or war related crimes. However, in many Asian countries capital punishment is employed as a weapon against drug-related crimes.

The arguments for and against the death penalty have raged for centuries; and while 89 countries have abolished the death penalty, and of those in 42 countries the death penalty is banned under their constitution. Nevertheless 74 countries still retain the death penalty.

One of the conditions of entry in the European Community is the abolition of the death penalty. The first country to permanently ban capital punishment was the then Independent country of Tuscany where capital punishment was outlawed in 1786. In the year 2000 Tuscany introduced an annual holiday to celebrate the event.

While the international public’s attitude to death defies logic, nothing is more hypocritical than sovereign governments’ attitude to killing.

Mass Scale Killing

In the last century over one hundred million lives have been lost in war; most of them civilians. This figure hasn’t caused many sleepless nights among the general public. Except for those involved in war, the majority of people accept casualties as part of life. Indifference closes their eyes.

Surprisingly those same indifferent people flock to donate money to victims of natural disasters. What is it about these two different fomenters of death that create either a paralysis of conscience or sincere pathos? Death is death whatever the cause. Is it that people ignore responsibility for the casualties of war, but with natural disasters over which they have little control, they can at least do something to neutralise the suffering?

Do these same people reconcile their logic in calling for the death penalty for violent murderers, terrorists and brutal dictators? It suggests people believe in death as the penalty for man-made misdeeds, but deaths by natural disasters are something their collective conscience won’t let them shun.

During the second Gulf War the casualties from the American-led ‘Shock and Awe’ terror campaign cost thousands of Iraqi lives; again most of them civilians. Who really were the culprits, the men who dropped the bombs, pulled the triggers, or the men who gave the orders?

Leaders of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (Many of whom have abolished capital punishment in their won countries) claim it was a just war, suggesting killing can be just when it’s orchestrated by the powerful, but never for the entrepreneur.

It has now been conceded by the rich and powerful in and out of America that the prime cause of the war was not a threat from Iraq, but oil. Experts claim American oil wells are drying up, and will be totally dry in the next twenty years.

At a recent Petroleum Symposium in Australia numerous speakers from the industry shared their concerns, claiming that a world oil shortage is imminent. A time span of three years was the forecast figure by when oil supplies begin to run out. And for Australians, petrol prices will have risen to over AUD$4 a litre.

So if Iraq was not a threat, was the invasion a form of state-sanctioned capital punishment? If so who is guilty for those deaths, the military or the politicians? What about those who profited from the war? Are they also guilty, not only for the death and destruction but for the blood money made from the misery? Should those people who promoted the war for commercial reasons be tried as war criminals?

What about the public conscience? Prior to the war in Iraq the country underwent a ten-year trade embargo. During that time it has been estimated that 4000 children a month died due to insufficient medical supplies and food shortages.

Throughout this period a quiescent publics’ only murmur was against capital punishment. > Their arguments ranged from: “it is an assault on human rights; it denies the opportunity of redemption, police and the courts are fallible, the death penalty dehumanises the execution and can cause trauma, and it creates in the public mind that life is not sacrosanct.

The world sees relatively few public demonstrations against collective crimes against humanity, and when they do occur they peter out when the pressures on people’s own lives take over. Is that because it’s deemed expedient to safeguard the West’s rich extravagant standard of living? Similarly in Zimbabwe, there have been little or no demonstrations against that country’s tyrannical rulers. Should we conclude that the infidelity of reason is made impotent by prejudice?

When It’s Ok For Some

Contrasting with the public’s indifference to what’s happened in Iraq and elsewhere. in Australia there have been sorrowful outcries against the death penalty imposed on convicted criminals for drug trafficking in both Indonesia and Singapore. The Australian Prime Minister and other political figures have made their whirlwind trips with pleas to the governments of both countries imploring them to clemency. Media headlines decry the inhumanity of the death penalty. The result has been that the crime, drug smuggling, has been swamped by a plethora of righteous indignation. Yet many of these same people demand the death penalty for terrorists, Saddam Hussein and others of similar ilk. The only conclusion we can reach is that death is ok if governments, for profit, trade or to protect their economy, sanction it. And death is okayed by the public provided they’re not asked to participate. And so we all wallow in the collective guilt of betrayal and confusion. Yes, death’s fine, you just have to find a selfish profitable reason to carry it out.

John Hartigan is a Perth-based writer. He welcomes your correspondence on the above topic, or any others of social / humanitarian disposition. Email him via:

State-Sanctioned Killing: from the Death Penalty to illegal invasions: by John Hartigan

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