In the wake of recent atrocities abroad, and our own tragedies here in the UK, we can sadly reflect that the gap in between these appalling stories seems to grow ever shorter, as we look ahead gloomily and wonder: whatever next? That the proliferation of different types of news media is quite probably giving a skewed picture of how common these calamities are, is pretty cold comfort. Bad things are happening out there, all the time it would seem, and the world doesn’t feel a particularly safe place to be.
Another effect of rolling 24-hour news stations and the exponential growth of social media is that, as fast as the information comes out to the public, so we – the recipients of all the bad news – are able to give our own instant reactions. All too often this will take the shape of lurid demands for death to be answered with death; the calls for a return of capital punishment grow more vociferous with every awful case that hits the headlines. Facebook pages will see a rash of images, prominently featuring the symbolic noose and demanding support for the view that the latest culprit should face the ultimate penalty. Feelings run high; the anti-hangers are just as passionately convinced as those who shout “Bring back the rope”, and the debate waxes hot and emotive.
Perhaps the most emotive argument put by the pro-hanging brigade runs as follows: If it were your son or daughter who was the victim of the latest murder or rape – wouldn’t you want the culprit to pay with his or her life? My answer to that tends to be an honest “yes”. If my daughter were to become a tragic statistic, I’d certainly want to kill the perpetrator myself; I believe this to be a normal human reaction. But it is also the reason why the relatives of victims don’t sit in judgement of those accused, and aren’t responsible for deciding the penalty that the law shall hand down. Justice requires dispassionate and impartial appraisal of the facts and circumstances, something that would surely be beyond the ken of anybody personally involved or actually bereaved.
I’ve tried, when defending my anti-capital punishment stance, to explain this distinction, but I’m usually accused of fudging the issue. But what if we were to put the opposite or reciprocal situation? Imagine this. Your son or daughter is accused of a murder, and the evidence against them is incontrovertible. You see them convicted, you watch in horror from the courtroom as the judge dons the black cap and pronounces sentence of death upon your flesh and blood. You, a lifelong proponent of capital punishment, a vociferous campaigner for the retention of the rope, see your offspring led, terrified and weeping, down to the cells to embark upon the wait that will end with a walk to the gallows.
Time goes by. Legal avenues of appeal are exhausted; pleas for clemency are entered, to no avail. Justice must take its course. You’re on record as enthusiastically backing the death penalty; you’ve written strongly-worded letters in the past to the quality press, emphasising the folly of removing this ultimate sanction, this absolute deterrent. Now your own child’s options have run out, and they will be put to death early tomorrow.
At home, you’re up at seven after no sleep. You can’t eat anything. You can’t meet the eyes of your family; they know your views from a lifetime of theoretical but heated discussion. Now that the reality you never foresaw is here, there is no appetite to go over those old arguments again. The clock draws closer to eight o’clock. There is a priest in the cell with your child, trying as best he can to ease these final moments, to give the comfort that you’re barred from providing. As the clock strikes eight, you know that there is a sudden burst of activity, your offspring ordered to bolt down a measure of rum, then arms and legs pinioned, a hood jerked over their head and assisted, blindly stumbling, into the neighbouring execution chamber. Within seconds, the trap has opened; your precious son or daughter has plummeted downwards to a sickening jerk as their life is snuffed out at the behest of the law. Your child is dead.
In your silent living room, you join together with your grief-stricken, heartbroken family, seeking such comfort as you can give each other as the awful reality sinks in. You look at each other, and you see the real victims of capital punishment, of so-called judicial execution. You have just embarked on a life-sentence of mourning one of your own family; killed by the state in the name of justice, condemning you and the rest of your kin, who have done nothing wrong, to years of misery and bitterness. You will live with the effects of this sentence, your miscreant son or daughter is beyond all that, and right now their body is being recovered by the functionaries who saw sentence of death carried out.
Anybody who supports the return of capital punishment should do themselves a favour; think about it in these terms. It’s beyond unlikely that you might ever be called upon to deliver a vigilante-type summary justice to someone who has harmed your son or daughter. But in a country regressive enough to have a law to enable the state to kill, it would always be possible that the alternative scenario could become a shocking reality for you and yours. If you really think you could accept it, as the price of a principle you hold sincerely – then go ahead and campaign away, post those images of a noose on Facebook, demand death for someone you’ll never know. You have more resolve than I could muster.
But I honestly beg leave to doubt it. I frankly defy anyone to say that they could accept becoming a collateral victim of capital punishment, bereaved by the law, forced to live out their own guiltless life in the knowledge that their country killed their child.
Capital punishment is no easy answer. It is a barbaric, horrific and out-dated relic, tainted by the nightmare grisly ceremony of the whole process, something incongruous to a modern society and rightly consigned to the dustbin of history. It must never return.