Friday, August 08, 2008

Vincent Li and the Death Penalty

Vincent Li is alleged (do I still have to say alleged? Has he confessed?) to have committed one of the most horrific murders in Canada's history. In a bus full of sleeping people, he was witnessed to have drawn a knife, stabbed a fellow traveller to death, cut off his head and (apparently) begun to eat the deceased's flesh.

Yeah. That screams mentally unstable to me, and is only emphasized when you read about his behaviour days before the murder, sitting on a park bench at 3am staring at nothing.

Regardless, it was a horrific thing and it's left a lot of people with a deep-seated need to react, to do something. Many of those people are demanding the death penalty, or that the man be tortured to death. You can google "Vincent Li Death Penalty" if you want more examples.

I'm not going to try to argue about whether Vincent Li deserves to be put to death, or tortured, or beaten up. It may very well be true that what we have is an evil, selfish individual who takes pleasure in hurting people. Or maybe he's got a real mental problem brought on by who knows what. Whether or not he deserves the death penalty (not available in Canada regardless) depends on his mental fitness, culpability, awareness, intent and a number of other legal concepts.

I'm arguing that we shouldn't kill him, just as I argued some time ago that we shouldn't be torturing people. My argument wasn't about whether they deserve it, though I believe they don't, it's about what it does to us.

Every report from every soldier and psychologist I've ever read has taught me that the act of killing another human being changes you. The person you were before is not the person you are after. By taking that human life, you have devalued human life. Even if you were standing behind Vincent Li, reaching for a hammer as he raised his knife to kill Tim McLean in his sleep - even then - the act of killing a man to save an innocent would leave you changed forever.

Even paramedics who are saving lives are required to go through an evaluation the first time they lose a patient. Death leaves a mark. It's only reasonable that killing leaves a larger mark, no matter how justified it may be.

If we, as a society, are to believe that we are civilized and modern, then we can not go around killing people - even the people who deserve to die. If we permit our government to use the death penalty within our own society, then we are changing our society in to one which uses killing to maintain itself. That will change our society as surely as it changes the soldier who kills in battle.

And there's one thing we do know about killing: it gets easier every time.

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1 comment:

Geekwad said...

I have also found the public reaction to be very upsetting. No one is asking, how can this happen, how can we prevent it, how can we spot the signs that someone is not "on the bus" (as the saying goes; is experiencing distorted perception or cognition) and what do we do if we think we see someone. It's all blood, blood, blood. Very distressing.

I see people *every day* that I know are living in a very divergent world from the rest of us. Anyone who goes out and about in the city regularly probably does too. We just look away.

I know people who are very well most of the time, but experience episodes where they become completely irrational and very excited. Such people are very common. Perhaps I am one. But, when an episode occurs, I have no idea what to do. I know what to do if there is a heart attack, a broken limb, a seizure, a poisoning, a head injury, a puncture, and so on. I was mostly instructed in school, and also by easily found public resources. No one has ever tried to tell me what to do when dealing with someone who has briefly lost their marbles, but that happens so much more often.