Tookie and Raskolnikov 
Published: Sunday | December 18, 2005

'TWO OLD ladies hacked to death!' is the kind of headline that makes even bleeding heart liberals instinctively cry out 'Bring back hanging!' But in Dostoevsky's classic novel Crime and Punishment, the hero Raskolnikov gets sentenced to less than 10 years in prison for bashing in the heads of two defenceless women, even after admitting he had planned the murder of one victim in advance and killed the other solely because she was a witness.

Strange as it may sound to anyone who has not read it, in the context of the book this seems entirely reasonable. Though Dostoevsky spares no details and makes no excuses for Raskolnikov, he makes him seem so real and so sympathetic and his remorse so affecting that it's a rare reader who ends the last page muttering 'the bastard should have fried'.

But though one of the most psychologically penetrating novels ever written, Crime and Punishment is still only a work of fiction. In real life most people would be baying for Raskolnikov's head. In fact while rereading the book last year, it occurred to me that in modern day Jamaica or America he would almost certainly be sentenced to death. This thought again came to mind when I heard about Stanley 'Tookie' Wiliams, the ex-leader and co-founder of the notorious Cripps gang who was this week killed by lethal injection in California.

At first glance there was great similarity between Williams and Raskolnikov. Had not both murdered innocent people in cold blood and then sought 'redemption'? For since being sentenced to death in 1981 Williams had turned his back on the gang ethos he helped create and written books and given talks trying to persuade youngsters to do likewise.


On closer acquaintance, however, a crucial difference emerged. Raskolnikov ­ though not without considerable urging from his prostitute girlfriend Sonya ­ bitterly repented of his deeds. Williams maintained his innocence until his death and refused to apologise for crimes he said he never committed. But the documented evidence makes his claims of having been 'railroaded' by corrupt officials and coerced witnesses ring completely false. The ballistic and independent eyewitness evidence against him was overwhelming.

Some say his refusal to apologise showed his complete conviction of his innocence since a simple 'I'm sorry' might have gone a long way to persuading California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to commute his death sentence. But to others it smacked of unreformed arrogance. Not only was Williams almost certainly guilty of the crimes he was convicted for, he very likely committed others of a similar type during his self-admitted wild young hoodlum days, and undoubtedly persuaded many members of the gang he created to perpetrate countless such acts. Directly or indirectly, Williams had oceans of blood on his hands, and not to say a direct sorry to the families of those whose murders he had been charged for raised serious doubts about how sincere his remorse was.


Yet, for all that, it's hard for me to consider his execution as anything but an act of barbarism. For one thing, the man had been on death row for 24 years and was clearly no longer a danger to society. What good could come of killing him now instead of keeping him behind bars for the rest of his life?

Incidentally, isn't it strange that the Privy Council commuted the sentence of convicted murderers in Jamaica because they considered being on death row for more than five years 'cruel and unusual punishment', yet the U.S. considers the execution of someone sentenced to death over 20 years ago business as usual?

Now, while my instincts often cry out for blood when I hear about particularly heinous murders and when I contemplate this country's record murder rate, in the end I always find myself unable to condone capital punishment. Part of it, perhaps, is my Christian upbringing. I may not be able to believe everything in the Nicene Creed. But there has never been a greater moral teacher than Jesus Christ and no higher spirituality than his message of universal compassion and forgiveness. It's hard to imagine someone who said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" being in favour of state-sanctioned execution.

But Crime and Punishment itself has also greatly influenced my opinions on the matter. It's only an imaginary work, but it's as close as I will ever come to knowing an articulate murderer intimately. And no one who has read it could conceive of the idea of Raskolnikov being executed as anything but 'an outrage on the soul', which was Dostoevsky's view on capital punishment. He asserted that "To kill for murder is an immeasurably greater evil than the crime itself," for there is no agony greater than the certainty of death.

His logic is no more convincing than anyone else's, but he knew more about the subject than most. Not only was he once about to be put in front of a firing squad and saved at the last minute by an Emperor's decree, but he was imprisoned for five years in Siberia amid murderers of all stripes. So, agree or not, it's hard to ignore his thoughts on the matter.


Yet, in a sense, all this is theoretical speculation. How would I feel if my mother or daughter had been brutally killed? I probably would want to see the murderer not only hung but drawn and quartered. Because it's easy to be grandiosely and condescendingly intellectual about matters in which you have no emotional stake. But who feels it knows it.

It's Dostoevsky's penchant for examining events from every angle that creates his famous 'moral complexity'. But in Crime and Punishment he never gives the viewpoint of the relatives of Raskolnikov's victims. Maybe the perhaps legitimate desire and claim for vengeance from those whose loved ones have been murdered is one reality even he could not come to terms with.

Would Dostoevsky himself have been so adamantly anti-capital punishment, for instance, if his wife had been raped and killed? Would any of us? Yet total forgiveness of all is what Christ preached. And was the spirit in which Pope John Paul II forgave the man who shot and almost killed him.

It's very ironic that in the Dostoevsky's Czarist Russia, capital punishment for murder did not exist, yet is an accepted part of life in America 150 years later. The U.S., or at least the parts of it represented by people like George Bush, loudly wears its religion on its sleeve and makes a constant hue and cry about being a 'Christian' country, especially in contrast to 'Godless' Europe. For some reason America's faith ­ and that of so many American-derived religions in Jamaica ­ is most often couched in Old Testament, Ten Commandments, 'Vengeance is mine' terms. Yet Jesus Christ himself specifically repudiated this view of the world.

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, don't resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:38-42).

"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law? And [Jesus] said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:34-40).

Why is it the most overtly 'Christian' of advanced democracies which has most explicitly Christ's message of limitless redemption for all?

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