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India's rape case debate has echoes in America

September 14, 2013|By Paul Whitefield
  • Indian protesters stage a mock hanging scene to demand what they see as the proper penalty for four men accused in the rape and murder of a young woman in December.
Indian protesters stage a mock hanging scene to demand what they see as the… (Saurabh Das / Associated…)

Is the only good rapist a dead rapist?

That certainly appears to be the sentiment of many in India after a judge on Friday sentenced four men to be hanged for their parts in the rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in December.

What's the view of the man on the street? Well, as my colleague Mark Magnier reported from New Delhi:

Pawan Kumar, a 52-year-old textile shopkeeper, said he would be happy to do the honors.

"They deserve capital punishment," the northern Uttar Pradesh state resident said. "The crime is unpardonable. My application to be hangman for Delhi jails is pending with the inspector general." …

"Hang All Rapists," said one sign with a small crooked face inside a noose, held aloft by a demonstrator Friday.

Now, I'll give those arguing for capital punishment their due: If the four are hanged, they certainly will never rape again.

But will executing them have any real effect on India's rape problem?

Here's the other side -- in America, we would call it the liberal viewpoint -- as Magnier reported earlier in the day:

The death penalty "does not act as a deterrent to crimes against women, and the probability of the victims being murdered by the criminals in order to destroy evidence must not be overlooked," the Asian Center for Human Rights said in a statement.

Since India's last execution for rape and murder, carried out against security guard Dhananjoy Chatterjee in 2004 for attacking and killing a 14-year-old in eastern West Bengal state, serious crimes including rape and kidnapping against women in the state have in fact hit an all-time high, the group said.

It's not as if India is alone in having this debate. California has more than 700 people on its death row, but it last executed someone in 2006. Texas, by contrast, has about 300 people on death row, and it has executed 148 since 2006. (From 1982 through July 31 of this year, Texas has executed 503 people; Californa, 13.)

Has that made Texas safer than California? Well, the Census Bureau reported that, in ranking states on violent crimes per 100,000 residents, in 2006 California ranked 14th and Texas … 15th (being ranked first was worst in these rankings -- that being South Carolina, which also has the death penalty).

Score one for the foes of capital punishment, I suppose.

Of course, in India as in the United States, the death penalty debate is not always analytical; it’s emotional too. For all the talk about deterrent, there are plenty of people who want "an eye for an eye" -- not just justice but revenge.

But we all recognize that horrific crimes spring from many factors. For example, here's what the Hindustan Times had to say after Friday's verdict:

The verdict is not an occasion to rejoice because it will not act as a deterrent. To make India safe for women -- and for men -- we must tackle deep-rooted social problems.

The men who targeted the woman and her friend that night had more or less the same profile: uneducated, unskilled, lived in sub-human conditions, and with no hope whatsoever of a secure future. And there are thousands of young and restless men like them in our cities and towns....

[A] large proportion of young people have no access to quality education, jobs and skill development programmes, but have a burning desire to escape their difficult conditions.

This is not a happy situation and unless these critical issues are tackled decisively, violence, not just sexual, will only grow in the coming years.

Sound familiar? Sadly, those sentences could be written about many places, including some right here in the United States.

India can go ahead and hang these men. It probably will. And Texas and other states can go ahead and continue their executions. It may make people feel safer. It may make victims' families feel better.

But it's stupid.

Some will argue that being against the death penalty makes me "soft on crime." Nonsense. You want to lock up these men -- and men like them -- for the rest of their lives? I'm fine with that. I don't see anything soft about locking someone up and throwing away the key. Just ask the guys in Pelican Bay.

But I also know this: You can't kill your way out of this problem. Not in India. And not here.


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