Capital Punishment

I watched Question Time on Thursday evening. For the benefit of any readers outside the UK, Question Time invites a studio audience to put questions to a panel comprising predominantly politicians, but also media figures, academics, and figures from various interest groups. On Thursday, the question of the application of the death sentence on Saddam Hussein arose, assuming that the outcome of his trial is that he is indeed found guilty.

Without exception, the members of the panel (in this case, three politicians and a spokeswoman for Amnesty International) stated that they thought that the death sentence should not be applied. This consensus left me not so much surprised as bewildered.

To summarise the panel’s main arguments, they thought that

a) As civilised societies, we in the West should be setting a good example, and doing all we can to dissuade Iraq from retaining the death sentence.
b) Executing Saddam would make him a martyr.

I will deal with the second point first, because the first merits special attention.

The martyr argument is a common one when we’re dealing with the use of lethal force or the death sentence against ideological or religious extremists. I am not convinced that it is a valid argument, in particular in the case where due legal process has been followed and a fair trial concludes that the appropriate sentence should be execution.

The trial of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg in 1946 exposed some of the worst crimes ever committed against humanity. Of course, the defendants argued that the whole trial was unjust and that it was merely the victors of the war punishing the losers. That didn’t wash. The Allies took the stance that crimes against humanity were not to be swept under the carpet and that there would be no excuse of ‘just following orders’ or their victims being just ‘casualties of war’ – genocide was genocide. Most of the defendants were found guilty and most were hanged for their crimes following a fair and just trial. Were they martyred?

If you start to lessen the severity of a sentence out of fear of reprisals, then justice has not been served. I will admit that in this aspect I am troubled by the execution of many forgotten lower ranking German officers who were following orders out of self preservation (I am sure that insubordination in the Reichswehr was treated in the severest manner – probably summary execution), but a line had to be drawn and part of Germany’s denazification was a brutal but legally-based harsh justice towards anyone found guilty of crimes warranting the death sentence.

In the short term, the fanatical Werewolf Nazi resistance groups who continued to fight on after the end of WW2 may have considered their executed comrades as martyrs, but going soft on the guilty would have almost certainly prolonged the denazification process and made no difference whatsoever to their fanaticism. We should remember that the western allies were still perceived as the enemy for some time after the end of WW2 – in fact, probably up until the Berlin Airlift in 1949.

So the martyrdom argument is invalid to me. Those found guilty at Nuremberg were not martyrs – they had committed heinous crimes, been found guilty and punished appropriately.

Now, back to that first point, about civilised nations setting a good example by not imposing the death sentence.

It is estimated that over 50,000 people die in the world every day. Some of them in very nasty ways – many of them innocent civilians, including children and babies. Annual road deaths in the UK alone are in the thousands and we accept them as an inevitable consequence of our freedom to drive. We execute dangerous dogs for biting people, when in many cases they were provoked into doing so. Death is all around us, but we, in the West don’t like to confront it, and I believe that our inability to accept and confront death is in part behind our objection to the application of the death sentence. So, in the face of 50,000 deaths a day, we have people expending energy on defending a man who is without doubt one of the worst tyrants in recent history and who should have been deposed and prosecuted after the first Gulf War. I find that perverse. This is a man who is on film ordering people out of a room to be summarily executed with a smile on his face and yet intelligent people would defend him. Is this really, objectively speaking, progress? I feel patronised in the face of their standard spiel about the wrongs of the death sentence, and their implication that those who favour the death sentence are in some way backward or unintelligent.

The common belief is that revenge is a negative emotion, but this is just a point of view and NOT a universal truth. Historically and in other cultures, revenge is a key component in justice. An eye for an eye does not make the world blind – it exacts a fair and equal reprisal in the face of a wrongdoing. In the case of Saddam, we would be talking of an eye for thousands of eyes. Rest assured, I reserve the right to exact revenge on someone who harms me or any of my loved ones, regardless of the legal consequences. This is a natural human reaction and one which I would not wish to suppress in the face of such an affront. I would go so far as to say that suppression of such natural emotions is actually dangerous. I can’t begin to imagine what relatives of those murdered go through when the murderer of their loved one walks free after a few years in prison, whilst they struggle with the loss of their loved one for the rest of their lives. That can not be true justice.

I once saw an interview with a US prison official who had presided over the execution of many people. His own view was that the death sentence had one and only one quality – you know with certainty that (assuming you have executed the right person) the murderer will never kill again. Well, that’s a good enough reason for me, and I have reservations about the U.S. application of the death sentence. I would want to be sure that the right person was being executed and only on the basis of extremely strong scientific evidence, so that the evidence went beyond reasonable doubt.

But what if we did get the wrong person?

Well, there are those who believe that an innocent wrongly executed must ‘take it for the team’, on the basis that in all likelihood, we get the right person most of the time. I don’t subscribe to this view myself (as I say above, I would want to be 99.99% certain that the right person was executed), but I can understand it and there is a discussion that can be had on this basis, as follows:

Assuming that the number of convicted murderers who are released from prison and subsequently reoffend, i.e. kill again, is x, and the number of innocents wrongly convicted and executed is y, if x is greater than y, then there is a very strong objective argument for the death penalty. This becomes an even more compelling argument when we consider that murder victims may be children, but we would never execute a minor. Leaving emotion aside, you are simply dealing with numbers of innocents and it would be better to save the greater number of innocents in either case.

I am not a sadist. I do not revel in the thought of the death of a person. Far from it – I do not even enjoy television violence or the strange glorification by some of gangsters. I believe quite simply that murderers should be ‘put down’, to use a vetinary euphemism.

I have seen The Green Mile – it did not provoke the reaction in me it provoked in many. I saw a very bad apple among the prison guards in that film, but had no real problem with the system itself, other than the method of execution used, which I would personally oppose.

I would concede that even evil people deserve dignity in death, but not the mercy that they themselves failed to show an innocent. In brutal terms, it’s just one of 50,000 lives and saving that one life isn’t really worth the effort expended by many well-intentioned people.