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4 August 2011

Why liberals should welcome the death penalty debate

A chance to refine and improve the arguments against capital punishment is no bad thing.

By George Eaton

With the launch of the government’s e-petitions site, the subject of capital punishment (aptly described by Albert Camus as “administrative murder”) is being widely debated for the first time in years. At the time of writing, a petition to reinstate the death penalty for the murder of children and police officers, submitted by Guido Fawkes, has received 752 signatures, while a rival petition to retain the ban has received 1,448. 100,000 are required for a petition to be “eligible for debate in the House of Commons”.

In common with most government websites, the site is remarkably un-user friendly. It has crashed repeatedly (“There is currently a much higher level of demand than we expected”) and, confusingly, features multiple petitions on the same subject (capital punishment, drugs legalisation). All of which prompts the thought that if the state isn’t fit to run a website, is it really fit to execute its own citizens?

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In the meantime, it appears that the government has already raised unrealistic expectations of a new era of debate. The backbench committee charged with considering petitions for debate was promised time to stage one a week, but will now be given less than one day a month. All the same, there is a strong chance that Parliament will now debate the death penalty for the first time since 1994, when MPs voted by 383-186 to retain the ban.

There are some who are dismayed by this development. Oliver Kamm, for instance, tweeted: “Cap punishment was settled issue in parl’y debate a generation ago: morally wrong and doesn’t work. E-petition signatories represent no one.” But I am not one of them.

The reasons why we should welcome any opportunity to debate this practice were ably stated by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty (1869). It is only in conflict with opposing views, Mill argued, that we understand and refine what we ourselves believe. Without this, the reasoned views of one generation can ossify into the prejudice and dogma of the next.

And, as I wrote earlier this week, opponents of capital punishment have no reason to fear debate. The best arguments are on our side. The death penalty is not a deterrent (the US murder rate has risen, not fallen, since the penalty was restored in 1976), it can lead to the death of innocents (the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four would have been hanged), and it has a brutalising effect on society. As George Bernard Shaw put it: “It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.”

By way of conclusion, here is an extract from George Orwell’s remarkable essay “A Hanging”.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working — bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming — all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned — reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.