Friday, July 23, 2004

Mary Kenny's Right to Life.

Why The Easter Bunny Needs State-Sponsored Murder

Mary Kenny is the sort of fatuous, pious wench I would normally never read unless forced to do so in the manner of Alex in Clockwork Orange. But she's in The Guardian today, rattling a few liberal cages on the matter of the death penalty. The title of her article does not say "Let's Kill Kiddie Murderers", but that would have been preferrable to the chosen title, which is: "Death is the right price" . The notion of a price involves an exchange of equivalents, parity, equity - even justice. Unfortunately, even her 8 paragraphs of tortuous, enervating prose actually puts to rest that notion immediately.

This is not only because two bodies are not necessarily equal, or even because many murderers have more than one corpse under their belt. It is because the notion of an equal exchange involves two parties ending with more or less the same value as they began with - and that is not what is entailed by the death penalty. Here is Kenny:

Capital punishment is despised by many, and those who defend it are condemned as barbarians, but how else can we express, symbolically and metaphorically, as well as materially, the notion that it is a very great evil to brutally extinguish the lives of two 27-year-old sisters?
I am not sure, as things are, that people do always understand, any longer, just how terrible a deed such a murder is. It seems to me a lot of people never did get the point of Soham - I have even heard the public grief expressed over these deaths described as "moral panic".

Got that? If you thought there was something disproprotionate about the national grief expressed over the deaths of two little girls (while other, similiar, deaths remain outside public discourse) you just don't understand how terrible a deed such as murder is. Kenny's chide continues:

The point is not sufficiently taken that a killer is not only extinguishing a life - twin lives, here, which have also been linked with another double murder of an elderly couple - but the future of a family: the promise of continuity, happiness and fulfilment and, in the natural order of things, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I'm not sure I like that "natural order of things" since it precludes the possibility of no grandchildren due to one's lifestyle choice or sexuality. But you get the point - we just don't feel the weight of such murders any more. Again, Kenny deduces this by virtue of the fact that some people thought that other murders going on in the world were perhaps as important if not sometimes more so.

Kenny strikes a little truth in her next:

The role of the death penalty is not, inherently, its deterrent aspect: that has never been proved. Its more powerful role is its message. Here is something awesome, which dramatises and amplifies the idea that in some particularly heinous murders, only the forfeit of the killer's own life can pay the tariff for the crime.

I have often suspected that the role of punishment in most societies had more to do with satiating the deep vindictiveness of human beings rather than making the society more liveable, and Kenny makes this acutely apparent. But think about what is being suggested here - we are to collectively assume responsibility for killing in order to satisfy a symbolic "tariff", which has nothing to do with the well-being of victims or their families, or even of preventing such crimes from happening again. We are being asked to fulfill a spiritual mandate. What Kenny is calling for is human sacrafice.

Consider her brisk, and glib summary of the objections to the death penalty:

Yes, there are many good objections to capital punishment: that it is unacceptable for the state to take life (though the state does take life, and sometimes quite lightly, in war, as we have recently seen). And - more compellingly - that a mistake can be made, and an innocent person executed. In the last two most celebrated cases of the 1950s, that of the teenager Derek Bentley, hanged in 1953, and of Ruth Ellis, hanged in 1955, both were verdicts later judged too harsh. In a review of the Bentley case 50 years later, the judge, Lord Goddard, was described as "frankly prejudiced": Bentley had a mental age of 11. Ellis, as was widely argued at the time, would have walked free from a continental court, on the plea that hers was crime of passion. These cases were extremely influential in the campaigns for abolition, and understandably so: there was too much public disquiet about them. In both cases, the home secretary should have commuted the penalty to a custodial sentence.

Unfortunately, home secretaries often made such decisions on political grounds, rather than weighing the merits objectively. When I was researching the life of Lord Haw-Haw, William Joyce, I asked the late Roy Jenkins why the home secretary in 1945, James Chuter Ede, had not commuted the Joyce verdict, since it was even then controversial. Lord Jenkins told me that politicians often made such decisions according to whether they wanted to look tough and strong, or generous and liberal. That is, their own image was often more germane to the decision than objective justice. (There was also a draconian civil servant at the Home Office, Sir Frank Newsome, who cropped up in the Joyce and Ellis cases, guiding the minister not to show any weakness.)

Thus the case for the death penalty was weakened by bad judges and self-serving politicians. Individuals were executed who should not have been.

Mark that first twist of logic - the state's involvement in mass killing abroad is sufficient to allow some involvement in a light sprinkling of killing at home. But Kenny discusses the objections as if their sole relevance was that a few people made bad judgments at the time. But human justice is fallible (unlike God's), and it is just possible that innocent people could be put to death, simply by mistake. Misunderstanding of evidence, eagerness to get a verdict, the desire for swift justice... there are many, many failings that human beings are heir to. Kenny continues:

But there is a case, I still believe, for the death penalty: very conservatively exercised, very seldom used, and even, if you like, usually rescinded, at the steps of the gallows itself...

As Christopher Hitchens once noted:

"Lesson one in the application of the death penalty ... is that the more you impose it, the more you are obliged to impose it."

Hence Ricky Ray Rector - once the genie is out of the bottle, it is all too easy for obese, opportunistic politicians to make three wishes in the hope of getting elected. That is especially so if you use the death penalty as a kind of spiritual tax; if you today kill Ian Huntley, there are many human beings awaiting secret trials without jury and who have no idea what the charges are against them who will be in the gas chamber tomorrow. After all, who would support the death penalty for the Soham murderer and yet refuse it for a bunch of terrorists? Similarly, if the death penalty had still been in existence at the time of the Birmingham bombing, six innocent Irish men and women would have been put to death. We would probably not today know of police coercion, brutality, forced confessions and rigged trials. Because that is the trouble with a dead person - that person, innocent or not, can never fight to clear his or her name. Kenny concludes:

Yet the very existence of those gallows underlines an idea we must not allow to become "banalised": that murder, deliberately carried out, is a heinous crime.


There is also a spiritual case against capital punishment: Lord Longford befriended Myra Hindley right until the end, because he maintained "everyone can be redeemed". And yet perhaps a person might redeem his soul better by paying with his life for the life or lives he brutally extinguished - and, where the young are concerned, the futures he destroyed - in a ceremony that is terrifying in its symbolic power: that walk to the execution chamber.

This terrible, ominous fetishism is the nec plus ultra of religious fanaticism. It would almost be better to allow mob justice and lynchings than have the death penalty sanctified by the "symbolic power" of "that walk to the execution chamber". I don't much care what happens to anyone's soul, but I am interested in what kind of society we become. There are, possible, exceptional circumstances where the state might have to kill - but it should remain outside the law, precisely in order to retain the guilt and stigma about such wicked acts, not erected in law and public view as a "terrifying" testament to our austere morality.

Still, as Bill Hicks once argued, you can understand Christians supporting the death penalty, even if there is no footnote to "Thou Shalt Not Kill" - after all, "if it wasn't for the death penalty, there'd be no Easter. And that's a three day week-end where I come from, so fuck it! Let's fry these people up!"