For Whom The Bells Toll – Für wen die Glocken läuten

The archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, warned against too sharp a tone in debates over the death penalty. “Be kind That’s what’s most likely to touch the hearts of people of faith.” (Source)

The word “execution” implies the right to judge life and death. Deciding whether someone lives or dies is no one’s right. It follows that killing a human being is morally reprehensible, not legitimate but illegal, and thus constitutes murder. This applies equally to natural and legal persons as well as institutions and state powers.

By accepting the label “execution,” we allow ourselves an acknowledgment of state-perpetrated murder and legitimize the killing of individual members of our human community. This approval creates supposedly legally binding facts and is not consistent with the fundamental rights of each of us.


In the effort to abolish the death penalty, one is permanently compelled to (verbally) acknowledge the applicable case law and consider a “proper” trial to kill a murderer as legal and to ask the respective legal apparatus for mercy in the case.

Pardons, in this sense, are perverse and contrary to human rights because, once effective, they imply the right to apply the death penalty. By asking for pardon, we permit and recognize the preceding act of punishment.

It is a blessing when the request for pardon is granted. It is even more of a gift when , as in the case of President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, his pardon has saved the lives of 36 people.

Motivation for action

But it is troubling that people like Salva Kiir are granted the right to decide the life and death of others. Kiir apparently issued the pardon for subjective motives, after the pope’s visit, and he is thanked for it. In overview, this is a catastrophically arbitrary act. If the pope’s visit had not touched him, he would possibly have used the “legal” room for maneuver to have the people killed.

In order not to put the state and its executive organs, which do not act in conformity with human rights, before the head, in order to keep them generally responsive, it seems necessary to court them steadily. Although they act in the same way with their remarks as a natural person who commits murder, they act with impunity in all publicity in violation of international and/or human rights.

That, for example, Iranian judges, who are involved in state acts of murder against the people, have the opportunity to receive health treatment in Western states such as Germany in a clinic, in a private clinic, which in turn is run by a citizen of Iranian origin, who is close to that very regime? This resembles a sad farce.

Give like in return?

But it resembles a society that is capable of not repaying like with like. We are morally and legally obligated, as well as capable, to hold people accountable for their offenses in a fair trial, after proof of guilt and culpability, and to confront them with consequences and just punishments.

We are not compelled to murder a murderer or show the door to a sick or injured person. We are capable of granting membership in the human community and a right to physical and mental integrity to everyone. Only then are we ourselves a share that promotes our society and avoids putting ourselves in the wrong humanly and morally.

Since nothing justifies a murder, there is just as no justification for killing. It is therefore unlawful and illogical to murder the murderer. This alone makes the death penalty absurd.

The German Basic Law

In an introduction to the German Basic Law by Prof. Dr. Dr. Udo di Fabio, former judge at the Federal Constitutional Court, the following can be found regarding whether we are authorized to deny a human being the right to belong to the human community and the right to live unharmed:

“The conception of man in the Basic Law is of decisive importance for the understanding of this constitution. The Germans want to be a state community of free citizens who develop individually and together as a political community, a community that respects the existence and dignity of every human life, from the unborn to the dying: In essence, this is true even regardless of one’s deeds and misdeeds, regardless of one’s citizenship, origin, gender or religion. Even the old man accused of genocide, even the old and sick dictator of yore, even the murderer, the perpetrator of violence and the swindler: they must expect just punishment, but they are always entitled to a fair trial. Respect for the victims and for the legal system may well justify harsh and consistent punishments, but the perpetrator is not excluded from the circle of human beings as an enemy, otherwise many a person would then have succeeded in his inhuman hatred of civilization.”

Gentle but persistent

It is worth persevering with Cardinal Wilton Gregory in gentle tones for decades for the abolition of the death penalty. And to ring the bells for those for whom true victory came too late.

Let us do justice to those for whom the true victory in the struggle for humanity and true justice came too late, by fighting passionately matter-of-factly with persistent kindness as a steady wind in our sails for the lives of fellow citizens threatened by suffering and death in the future.

Peter Brauer
German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty