Senior UK MP: What about if we bring back hanging?

An interesting, if perhaps not widely known element of Ireland’s membership of the European Union is that we are precluded, under EU law, from having the death penalty. So perhaps the following proposal from the new deputy chairman of the UK’s Conservative Party might be called “part of the Brexit dividend”:

Of course, we wouldn’t need to worry about any executions happening in Ireland anyway – at most, Judge Martin Nolan might decide to sentence someone to suspended death.

Jokes aside, there might be no issue on which elite opinion and what we might term proletarian opinion in western democracies is more sharply divided than the question of whether executions are justified.

To the average very serious person in the west, the death penalty is an abomination on both moral and practical grounds – in the first instance, there’s the basic question of whether the state has the right to take the life of a defenceless person. (The Romans, when executing people, often put them in with Lions and let the best chap win. In modern society, those about to be executed tend to be restrained). The death penalty is the ultimate expression of state power: that’s why this writer, for one, sides with elite opinion and opposes it.

And that’s before we get to the obvious concerns about the state killing the wrong people: My own view here is that if you can’t trust the Government to run a hospital competently, you probably should not trust them to never make a mistake when it comes to taking life.

For others though, there are less refined, but no less important facts to consider: Some people do commit crimes so horrible and abhorrent that it can fairly be said that they deserve to die for them. Obviously the most emotive example is somebody who rapes and murders a child – such a person has, by their actions, placed themselves so far outside the range of redeemable offences for it to be fairly arguable that there is no punishment, absent their death, that is likely to satisfy the need for justice, and the need for society to express its horror and outrage at their crime.

That latter point is an aspect of the justice system which elite opinion tends to forget: The Death Penalty is not simply a punishment, in the eyes of its advocates. It is also a statement: It is the strongest possible message that society can send, not only to the condemned but to the victims of the condemned and to everyone else, that certain things simply will not be tolerated. It is not just punishment, but catharsis: The correction of an error, the righting of a wrong. When the state takes a life via the death penalty, it essentially says that this person’s very existence was a mistake, and that it needed to be corrected.

It also needs to be pointed out here that high minded concerns about human rights and the limits of state power have limited appeal in communities that bear the brunt of the worst crimes. Support for the death penalty, in most polling, is correlated with social class: If you are poor and deprived, you are more likely to support it. Elite opinion tends to see this correlation and draw the wrong lesson: They instead say it is based on education: If you have gone to college and learned wisdom, they reason, you will tend to oppose the death penalty. If you have not, then you are simply less enlightened. This is a reasoning that happily tends to make those who believe in it feel better about themselves – and it is a line of reasoning that works right across the progressive belief spectrum. This is why progressive beliefs tend to be seen as “high status” – the notion that they are correlated with education, and higher social class. Holding those beliefs says more about you than it does about the beliefs themselves.

But education is also correlated with social class and deprivation. The poorer you are, the more deprived, the less likely you are to be educated. That does not make you morally inferior – it just gives you a different perspective.

It is one thing for people who live in relative safety to make grand pronouncements about the sanctity of human life in the case of a gangland mass killer – it is quite another for those living in a community terrorised by gangland mass killers to be persuaded that 20 years and then parole makes them feel safer. As one such person said to me some years ago, we have no problem shooting rabid dogs. But for some reason we have great difficulty applying the same reasoning with two legged rabid dogs.

As I wrote above, I oppose the death penalty: I simply do not believe it is a power the state should have, or be trusted with.

But we should also recognise that the criminal justice system has gone much too far in the other direction. What statement does it send when people who commit serious assaults are given suspended sentences? If the death penalty says there is no place for these people, then suspended prison sentences say the precise opposite: That crime is tolerated, and fine.

It is not surprising that many people wish to swing back hard in the other direction.

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