Apart from the morality of it – and Guido’s oft repeated loyalty to Catholicism, which The Knife shares, comes a cropper here (see below) – judicial execution really does bring out the absolute worst in society. Nothing wrong with having the debate, and it probably should take place in Parliament, but it instantly invokes the dreaded concept of moral relativism, the source of just about every bad feature of British society in the last 60 years.
For example, what is intrinsically worse about the murder of a policeman over any other citizen? Should ALL child killers die? No exceptions? If there are, why, and who sets the criteria?
The numerous practical issues make one shudder. The inevitable sight of a queue of jobseekers and assorted fruitloops seeking to be executioners, possibly lead by identikit lynch mob hypocrites like big Mags Haney. The fact that executioners are haunted people, very often, and executions are easily botched. Just wait for the first execution of a possibly innocent man or woman. It’s happened before. Eventually it would happen again. The endless appeal process on a British version of death row, featuring countless interviews with the likes of Cherie Blair and Clive Stafford Smith. The near certainty of a murderer walking free occasionally because a jury is reluctant to commit a man to death.
It may not be fashionable to say it, but Richard Littlejohn accurately pointed out why this debate keeps cropping up :
“The reason this emotive topic regularly tops online polls is because it illustrates graphically the gulf between politicians and those of us who pay their wages.
When hanging was abolished, we were assured that life imprisonment would mean life. Today, killers can be out in as little as seven years.
Only this week we learned that Milly Dowler’s killer Levi Bellfield is suing for £30,000 compensation for cuts and bruises he suffered in a prison attack. Bellfield says if he wins — which he almost certainly will — he intends to use the money to buy a caravan, so confident is he that he will not spend the rest of his life in jail.
Hardly surprising that in such cases some people hanker after the rope.”
2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority should limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.
And really, in the UK in 2011, it surely is possible to find non-lethal means which defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor. This does however deny an opportunity for retribution of the eye-for-an-eye sort, which in The Knife’s opinion, but not Guido’s, is the correct stance. It doesn’t exclude the intrinsic retributive element of imprisonment, of a particularly tough kind. The kind we need in the UK.
Which brings us back to Littlejohn. The real debate in Parliament, with a view to changing both legislation and the behaviour of the judiciary, should be on the meaning of sentences. The cliche is that life should mean life, much of the time. This does not have to exclude the benefits of rehabilitation and remorse.
Tim Stanley, in the Telegraph, dwells at length on the claim that the death penalty “works”. His piece is contentious on a number of levels, not least that it irreversibly fails to work if you’ve just executed the wrong man. Try an old piece by Ian Gilmour, as a raw and highly effective counterpoint.
Ultimately however, all these opinions can be tossed around eternally, if your reference points are not fixed. Which brings us back to moral relativism, and it’s nihilistic cousin, utilitarianism.
Last word to the official Vatican statement from 2001:
The universal abolition of the death penalty would be a courageous reaffirmation of the belief that humankind can be successful in dealing with criminality and of our refusal to succumb to despair before such forces, and as such it would regenerate new hope in our very humanity.