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Death in life

01 August 2014


HERE is a grim statistic to warm the liberal heart: it costs $2 million more to execute a felon than to impose life imprisonment without parole. As an argument against the death penalty, it is not the one that liberal Europeans would necessarily reach for. But it is apparently working for Conservative Republicans in the United States, whose default position one would expect to be pro-capital punishment.

There were more paradoxical perspectives in The Documentary: At the end of death row (World Service, Tuesday of last week), in which Rajini Vaidyanathan visited Tennessee, a state so keen on execution that publicly accountable judges known to be soft need to beware of their electorate.

Tennessee has recently passed a law allowing the reintroduction of the electric chair. So successful have been campaigns by the likes of Reprieve, an organisation based in the UK, and boosted by the recent case of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, that the methodology of death is now a significant issue.

And the US public's appetite for the death penalty is on the wane. Republican lobbyists claim not just that the cost of state execution is high, but that it instantiates the wielding of government power over the life and liberty of the individual. Church constituencies, especially on the buckle of the Bible Belt, also hold power in the debate, although currently the pro and anti lobbies are split along denominational lines.

Yet, for every sorry tale of a criminal's last hour, there is some equal and opposite force: here, the case of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, whose kidnapping, torture, and murder were unbroadcastably appalling. Interviewed here, Newsom's parents recalled that it was as a result of a particular sermon from a Baptist preacher that they were confirmed in their belief that the death sentence should be imposed. It was a reminder that, for some, it is the righteous thing to do.

Happily, the kind of moral challenges faced by the agony aunt from the magazine Cosmopolitan, Irma Kurtz, are not in the same league; but, in World Agony (Radio 4, Monday of last week), she is finding out, from agony aunts around the world, about the universality of human dilemmas.

Take Bachi Kakaria, featured last week, whose columns in the Mumbai Mirror and Bangalore Mirror regularly treat of adolescent heartbreak and career disappointment. Kakaria takes a refreshingly bracing approach to most of this: "Adolescence is an age of acne and ecstasy," she declares, and most of the problems will not last beyond the next bout of spots.

If you don't fancy writing to a newspaper about your issues, why not pop them into a bottle and see what the unknown recipient makes of them? In Word of Mouth (Radio 4, Tuesday), Chris Ledgard explored the various genres of bottled messages, from the cry for help to the cry for friendship.

There have been some notable success stories resulting from this form of communication - lifelong friendships, even marriage. But the sad fact is that most bottles end up pretty much where they were thrown. And, besides, you should not be littering the seas in the first place.

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