Crime and punishment and the Lebanese paradox
A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was certainly not thinking of Lebanon when he uttered those words. Nevertheless, the killing of 24-year-old Roy Hamoush and the subsequent uproar are probably best understood within this cold paradigm.
What began as a simple fender-bender between Hamoush, a newly graduated engineer, and a recently released convict escalated to a brutal death and countrywide calls for an end to Lebanon’s moratorium on capital punishment.
Many of the proponents of public executions have found succour among Lebanon’s populist politicians, who have been keen to assure the wider public that the state will show zero tolerance towards those who commit such heinous acts.
However, rights groups and international observers have all been keen to stay the executioner’s hand, citing capital punishment’s ineffectiveness as a deterrent.
While much of what they say is likely correct, many overlook the principal causes behind Lebanon’s rising tide of violence. That is, the monopoly of force required to police any population is not enjoyed by the Lebanese government. Rather, it is shared with an armed militia that owes its ultimate fealty, not to lawmakers in Beirut so much as to their counterparts in Tehran, undermining the legitimacy of government and eroding the rule of law.
Populist voices among both the public and the political have called for the return of capital punishment. However, Jean- Pierre Katrib, a member of the Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights, said: “Extensive studies in the field have categorically negated the correlation between administering capital punishment and a decline in crime.”
Katrib also outlined how capital punishment contradicts the concepts of human dignity as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He also said that “modern tenants of punishments adopt a corrective emphasis as opposed to a cruel, degrading and humane sentencing and ultimately from a functional side, taking one life does not bring back the other.”
In Lebanon, however, the debate transcends the age-old argument over the specific value of capital punishment. Rather, it lies primarily in Lebanon’s status as a failed state. The Lebanese state cannot project power because essentially all the Lebanese people, whether law-abiding or criminal, have born witness to its repeated failure to follow through on many of the crimes perpetrated over the years, crimes that are ultimately brushed under the rug.
The causes for this range between the country’s corrupt judiciary and political hopes of preserving our illusive national unity. This discredits state agencies and shows them as little more than pawns in the Lebanese sectarian system.
Contrary to most international norms, Lebanon shares, or rather concedes, power to other more powerful and armed sectarian entities — mainly Hezbollah — which provide safe havens for lawbreakers. This might explain why people have lost faith in the state and its ability to protect them.
However, none of the activists who are demanding capital punishment have hinted that this lawlessness might stem from the repeated showdown between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, during which the latter was bullied or simply outmanoeuvred by an armed sectarian group with open allegiances to a country not its own.
While criminal activity cannot be solely credited to one sect, the role that Hezbollah has played over recent years has greatly contributed in the rise of lawlessness within the Shia community. Mustafa Fahs, a political analyst and commentator, said: “Hezbollah’s mobilisation of the Shia against an imagined internal and external foe has directly led to the current state we are in.”
In 2008, Hezbollah needed these young men to attack the government of Fouad al-Saniora, in what was known as the May 7 incident. This message, by necessity, has become ever more pronounced as Hezbollah has become ever more enmeshed within the Syrian quagmire.
Be that as it may, the clamour for the return of capital punishment will not bring back the reverence of the Lebanese state nor will it put an end to these brutal killings. On occasions in which the Lebanese judiciary implemented capital punishment, it has done so while respecting the sectarian balance, lynching Christians, Muslims and Druze on a strictly proportional basis.
Before any of the Lebanese designate themselves as hangmen, they need to understand that the rule of law is a holistic process and does not come simply from hanging a few bad apples.
Rather, it comes from allowing the Lebanese state and its judiciary to implement the law equally to all and irrespective of sectarian concerns. It comes from creating a set of circumstances in which no criminal is allowed to hide behind his sect nor pass off straightforward brigandage as an act of resistance. Only then will we get justice for Roy Hamoush and the many souls we simply choose to forget.