Bruce Anderson

A hanging matter

There is a sound moral case for restoring the death penalty, says Bruce Anderson, but the practical barriers seem insurmountable

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Until well into the 1980s, the death penalty was a problem for aspiring Tory candidates. Local associations were almost always in favour, strongly. This led to much wrestling with conscience. Conscience often lost. Matters were easier for card-carrying intellectuals. Any constituency prepared to consider one of them had already braced itself for bizarre opinions. But it would have been unwise for a beef-faced squire to declare his opposition to hanging. His audience would have assumed that he had a host of other suspect tastes.

Even as recently as the mid-1990s, Shaun Woodward felt it necessary to tell the Tories of West Oxfordshire that he was a hanger. Mr Woodward, a card-carrying pseudo-intellectual who subsequently defected to Labour, and invisibility, was hoping to take over Douglas Hurd’s seat. He succeeded, but not because of the death penalty. That cost him at least one vote. Judy Hurd, Douglas’s wife, might have forgiven him if she had believed him. As it was, she had two objections. She did not like being lied to. Nor did she respect the political judgment of anyone who thought it useful to lie on such a subject, to constituents who had come to revere Douglas Hurd, an unswerving anti-hanger.

Since Mr Woodward’s betise, the debate has moved on. David Davis was asked a question. As he supports capital punishment, he said so: no dishonesty there. In the House of Commons, the death penalty has always been a matter for individual judgment. Mr Davis made it clear that his was a personal opinion and unlikely to prevail.

David Davis was speaking during the Soham trial. The murder of children is always likely to inflame the public mood. Yet this did not work in Mr Davis’s favour. There has been a widespread impression that he went too far. It is as if the death penalty has joined the compulsory repatriation of coloured immigrants: a view that may vociferate itself in low pubs, but is not to be tolerated in polite society.

Apropos of polite society, much the same applies to President Bush. His enthusiasm for the death penalty has not commended him to the bien-pensantry. Indeed, it has led him to be patronised as a buffoon, incapable of reaching civilised European standards of political discourse. Yet in moral terms, the case for capital punishment remains as strong as ever. Almost everyone accepts that a state may kill its enemies on the battlefield. A pacifist, who would disagree, is also entitled to argue that it should not execute its worst domestic enemies: murderers. The rest of us have a problem. It may be expedient to kill a hapless conscript; that does not make him more worthy of death than Myra Hindley. Expediency is not to be conflated with morality.

It could be argued that the conscript is dangerous, unlike Hindley, at least once she was under arrest. But that leads on to deterrence. No one has yet demonstrated a direct link between deterrence and severe punishment. Nor has anyone disproved it: so where should the burden of proof lie? If we might save one innocent person by executing 20 murderers, are we not obliged to execute the murderers? A soldier in charge of an artillery barrage would go on firing as long as there was any possibility that the enemy could still inflict casualties. Gun crime is out of control in several major cities. It is possible that capital punishment might help to rectify this. If we are serious about the protection of the public, are we not therefore obliged to bring it back? There are practical problems: when murderers were hanged, the jury had voted for guilt by a 12–0 margin. These days, jurors are less robust, as are lawyers; it would be hard to find enough of them to administer a criminal process which could lead to the scaffold.

But lawyers’ squeamishness does not refute the case for deterrence — or retribution. Why should society not employ the dread solemnity of the penalty of death to express its abhorrence of the foulest of crimes? Moreover, if a few abominable murderers were executed, the public’s justified wrath over the failures of the criminal justice system might be appeased. This would make it easier to treat the vast majority of criminals more humanely. Retribution for the worst could facilitate rehabilitation for the rest.

There is a further point. The person eventually convicted of the Soham killings will spend the rest of his or her life in prison, as a hunted victim. Among the rest of the inmates, even the vilest of the vile will wish to vent detestation through violence. A large sum of public money will be spent to ensure that a worthless life is protected throughout a profitless captivity. A quick death at a rope’s end would be a cleaner outcome.

Those who shrink from killing such a murderer may think of themselves as moralists. In reality they are mere aestheticians. The overt brutality of the death sentence appals them. So they avert their gaze from the decades-long banal brutality of a life sentence. Nor are they interested in the grim business of protecting life and property. They would rather retreat behind the statistical unlikelihood of falling victim to a serious crime than take effective measures to reduce the statistics. For morality, read complacency.

George Bush may have faults, but they do not include complacency. His morality is a hard-edged affair. He believes in confronting evil. He sees nothing wrong with executing murderers. He does not believe that all the moral code of the Old Testament is necessarily obsolete. He thinks that on occasions it may be necessary to destroy the bad in order to safeguard the good. His definition of goodness includes foetuses. Most of those who objected to David Davis’s suggestion that some of the worst murderers should be put to death also believe in abortion on demand. Mr Bush would find their moral principles utterly incomprehensible. No death penalty for murderers, yet the slaughter of the unborn in industrial quantities; to President Bush, that makes no sense. He does not believe a civilised society should put King Herod in charge of the unborn.

That brings us to the basic difference between the President and his moralising critics in old Europe. He is serious about moral questions; they are not. He believes that a moral code derived from the Judaeo-Christian tradition remains applicable. They believe that all the moral questions which have vexed philosophers and theologians down the ages have now been turned into lifestyle choices. David Davis seemed to be making an out-of-date lifestyle choice, and may have suffered political damage. Most of President Bush’s fellow Americans do not believe that his choices are out of date. That is not an argument for the superiority of European values.