Marco Impagliazzo: How to defeat hatred, globally

November 29 2019 - ROME, ITALY

Death Penalty

12th International Meeting of Justice Ministers

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12th International Congress of Justice Ministers
Prof. Marco Impagliazzo keynote speech

It is not easy to create order in the contemporary world. It is difficult to understand it. The ideologies used to indicate with certainty the “scientific” path to the future. Even neoliberalism strongly argued that it would have succeeded where great empires, religions and ideologies had failed. Today we all are more dubious and thoughtful when facing such certainties, while chaos reigns all around us. It is the time of bewilderment. The contemporary world is complex, it requires the ability to read the diversity of events, to grasp their depth with a culture of complexity. But this possibility is not for everyone and it is not offered to everyone. For this reason, today, culture and politics often get divorced: the latter often loves the simplifications shouted out. Indeed, the simplifiers do not help us understand, they stimulate passions, they guide reactions, but they remain alien to a direct grip on events.
This world of passions and emotions concerns all aspects of everyday life, including justice, security and punishment. For some years now, we have been observing that the perceptions of justice are going through emotional waves just as in politics. Spectacular trials, morbid details of which the press is full, magistrates or lawyers as television stars, heated debates on legal sentences. The need for security appears as the new drug to face the confusion and fear: it is necessary to punish, to find those responsible, to “put in jail” and if possible “throw away the key”.

The debate on death penalty also suffers from such excesses, and someone tries to revive it. It happens in Italy, it happens in Europe. Of course, we are not in the process of reintroducing it, but this heated atmosphere is enough to change the overall picture in the world. Just as war or military resolutions of political disputes are becoming more popular, so the death penalty may have the same trend. It certainly does not look as scandalous as it did a few years ago.

The culture of death (penalty) is likely to expand
Terrorism, incessant wars in some parts of the world, global criminal networks and drug trafficking, all echo the ever-increasing spread of death sentences that are unofficial (extrajudicial) but more and more commonly accepted. The States are no longer the only actors to have the monopoly of violence. So do mafias and terrorisms. So do worlds, cultural and religious universes. This is the core of the Islam crisis, as in the case of terrorism of Islamic origin, especially after 11 September 2001, with its ability to position itself as a military and media antagonist of the Western world, as a global Islam. The attack on the twin towers itself was described by Bin Laden and his followers as a legitimate retaliation, a death sentence for reciprocity: if we suffer, why not you? In doing so, we are even: a way of thinking that hides an idea of remuneration, exactly as in pro-death penalty argumentation. Al Qaeda uses the same kind of reasoning, pointing out to the Islamic world that their gesture was not madness but a politically legitimate revenge.

Wars with no meaning
Unnamed and meaningless wars - “atheistic wars” according to the definition by Bernard Henri Levy-, straddling fear and extreme defense of identity, are ruining our world. They seem mandatory and no one is so shocked anymore. Condemning entire cities to death - I am thinking of Syria - does not provoke demonstrations of outrage or solidarity. The man of our time is crushed by his own worries and gets angry only for himself. When the “wretched of the Earth” strike in revenge, armed solutions are invoked: a deadly and lethal reciprocity. This desire for war fills almost incidentally our societies: no one really says he wants it, but its premises are sown everywhere. Hate speech, abuses, search for enemies, stigmatizations. More and more often, people invoke death against someone even in public speech. War has become a culture, with its language and its consequences. A war of racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, even the return of anti-Semitism that seemed to be buried in the meanders of history.

It is precisely from the worst underground feelings that a taste for war re-emerges: the supporters of peace are opposed and mocked or deemed naive. In the same way, the desire of revenge and retaliation rises: an eye for an eye. It is said that to provide the civil society with security, it is necessary to be strict and to use military language: landings, invasion… and then more and more retaliation: if they want to invade us, I must defend myself. Obviously no one has ever asked migrants if they really want to conquer us… but that is enough to cultivate the culture of the enemy, of punishment, of social death.

A culture of punishment
The general tightening of police, judiciary and penitentiary policies observed in most of the countries in the world over the last ten years has run parallel with a transformation process of the State, which is increasing its judiciary power and its criminal legal network. A few years ago, the overload of Italian prisons at least created some discomfort in public administration. Today, it is no longer a priority: indeed, some say that prisoners must “rot”.

In an era where wage labor is fragmented and discontinuous, daily life is no longer regulated by the maternal and always available figure of the welfare State, which in fact is criticized. It relies instead on the manly and authoritarian State-judge, and on the culture of punishment. This is reflected in the soaring increase of prison population… and in the privatization of prisons in some countries.

Solitude gives rise to a conformism of respect

A political situation, however destabilizing and confusing it may be, cannot remain merely a state of mind. Nonetheless the majority of citizens seem to be complying: if institutions or leaders become more aggressive, people will follow them. On the other hand, everyone is becoming more alone, everywhere, and in the West also older. People are easily alarmed and ask for tranquility. Walls are the result of such an angrily expressed or defended need. Thirty years ago the Berlin Wall fell, but the world today is full of small or large walls, some invisible, made of prejudices as hard as concrete; others under the eyes of all, well placed and increasing. The ways in or out are sealed, cities are divided, neighborhoods are separated and everyone goes in the obsessive search for his/her equals, who seem reassuring. Thus, ever more severe penalties are invoked, abandoning the idea of rehabilitation in prison, of human rights for all. Those who are “inside” must remain there, and none believes in repentance or let alone forgiveness any longer. There was a time when journalists were busy with the relatives of crime victims. They were asking insistently: “Can you forgive?”, even in a hypocritical and exaggerated way. Now this does not happen any longer, but harsh punishments are increasingly being invoked for everyone and everything, and often the death penalty. The death penalty is the consequence of such a punitive, frightened, shouted climate. The social unrest seems to justify also the use of final penalties. All conform to the need for security, despite the constant decrease of violent crimes. But the threshold of tolerance is always lower. At the same time, deaths at sea no longer affect people: what kind of humanity are we preparing, the one in which I (a victimized and angry I) am the only one who counts, and the others count less and less?

The role of those who still have faith in humanity
This age seems to condemn us to irrelevance. Everything is too great, vast and difficult to understand. But if we are here today, it is because being irrelevant and invisible citizens is not our choice. One might wonder why we are insisting again on the death penalty. We wonder whether the time is right and whether this is appropriate. In the face of terrorism, drug trafficking and the culture of death, should we not talk about something else? Security, for example? Aren’t we out of our time? I do not think so and I will tell you why: we talk a lot about security but we do not realize that while its notion is polysemous (national, international, public, military etc.), its hard core is individual security. Security as a fundamental right of the human being, against which all other concepts of security are subordinated. Is the frequently invoked security functional to people’s safety?

Let me quote the Constitution of a large African country, South Africa: “Everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right to: a) not to be deprived of freedom arbitrarily or without just cause; b) not to be detained without trial; c) to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources; d) not to be tortured in any way; e) and not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way.”

We are gathered here to speak out against the death penalty because it is our way to oppose the culture of death in general and to show the good of life. The contagion of goodness is communicated by making it visible, by showing it. Conformity is only for the violent. As a great Pope used to say, there is no point in complaining about our time: as bad or good it can be, it is always us who determine it. And we do not surrender to the culture of death.

The death penalty is the synthesis of that dehumanization process that has to be opposed: it is an irreversible penalty, it is imposed by those same public authorities that should defend life, it resembles a revenge, it is based on reciprocity with evil, it sends a powerful message to society about the legitimacy of retaliation. Excessive simplification of problems can increase support for a brutal and final answer such as the death penalty. On the contrary, when issues are presented in their complexity, and in their inevitable human aspect, support for drastic measures such as the death penalty becomes much more nuanced. This is also the case in countries that maintain the death penalty. Numerous studies show that when people are informed of the possibility of sentencing and executing an innocent person, of the discrimination that the death penalty entails to the detriment of the poor and the weakest, and of the positive example of countries that have abolished it, support for the death penalty is reduced. The words spoken by Judge Thurgood Marshall, when in 1972 death penalty was abolished in the United States, still apply: if well informed, “the great mass of citizens […] would conclude that the death penalty is immoral and therefore unconstitutional”. Public opinion is malleable and even what appears to be an attachment to the death penalty can easily crumble: the rapid fall of support for the death penalty in the countries that have abolished it (from France to Australia) and surveys in some countries which maintain it (from Japan to Zimbabwe) reveal a willingness to accept a milder policy if chosen by the government.

We believe in the strength of civil society that does not give up in the face of such un-values of brutality and revenge, but patiently builds and recreates the fabric of human relations worn out by loneliness and poisoned by hatred. We cannot allow the culture of death and the logic of retaliation to contaminate our feelings and the air we breathe. It would make our society and our cities even more violent. We want to change this culture and to guide the policy, conscious of the fact that it takes time and we need results. Ours, in fact, is not a simple advocacy campaign, but a work that starts from the prisons and corridors of death, with real people who live the drama of the death penalty, this terrible suffering of hopeless expectation before it is even carried out. The stories of prisoners and especially those sentenced to death touch and challenge us: for years we have created a human network of relationships, visits and correspondence with so many. In this network of sufferings, we have introduced the thread of friendship, following personal stories sometimes for decades. In some cases, we have succeeded in bringing out an uncomfortable truth: that there were miscarriage of justice or summary judgments even according to the strictest law. We have witnessed miraculous releases and rebirths after hellish years.

All this gives us hope and comfort: the voice of the sufferers who cry in emptiness has reached us and changes us. This is Sant'Egidio’s work in prisons: a human network beyond the walls, which cares, accompanies and sometimes also frees. It is the power of work done with people and not only with ideas: a commitment that becomes even more convincing because it is made of real life, lived and suffered. Of course, it takes patience and a lot of work: results and efficacy must always be sought. Every day we wonder how to strengthen our impact.
This is also the case with the countries which maintain the death penalty: a diplomatic and dialogue work that endures over the years and can bear fruit. Many fruits have already been harvested: the moratorium campaign has gradually progressed, starting from its raising numbers. But we must insist: in the end, the culture of life shall win. It is the strength of our commitment and that of the many in the world who fight against the death penalty: I am referring to the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, to all those who share synergistically the same battle, to those politicians or ministers with government responsibilities who choose ethically to support this battle even when it did not immediately create consensus. Together we can already see how tomorrow’s world can be a more human world. We can daydream for this to happen.