Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Death, part two...


"Hanging is too good for him, said Mr. Cruelty." John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress.

This news is stale now but I am hardly surprised at pope Francis' position on Capital Punishment. "The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty," he says. Actually, the commandment says: "thou shalt do no murder," and reiterated by Christ himself in Matthew 19:18, which has a totally different meaning, and I'd like to know at what point this general, prescriptive, Bible-in-basic-English translation supplanted the old rendering, but the significance of this change is here for all the world to see. I myself was not aware of the old rendering until I first read the Book of Common Prayer, as late as my university years. We've all heard the trite objections to capital punishment. Examples of unjust and botched executions are the most common. Now, tenderness, and even a sense of outrage, about these things are feelings that I share myself, especially where justice, competence and due process have been wanting. But are these absolute arguments against capital punishment? As a matter of principle, I am very much in favour of capital punishment and I tend to think that people who are repulsed by the idea perhaps don't believe as much as I do in the immortality of the soul, or are perhaps too naïve to realise the unrepentant intractability of hard criminals. It's like watching nature programmes with my mother. She always cheers on the fleeing antelope and becomes visibly distressed when it is tackled. And I can't understand this! Should the cheetah go hungry? Would my mother force feed carnivores tofu, as Linda McCartney did her malnourished dogs, to spare the creature further down the food chain?

But I digress. There are many reasons I favour capital punishment. For a start, it is clearly sanctioned by the Holy Bible:
"For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." Romans 13:4.
It is also just. Look at this man:

I cannot get over his eyes. Ted Bundy had the same shallow, yet menacing, expression. If eyes are the windows of the soul then these are windows into nothing.

His name is Ian Brady. In the mid-1960's he and his accomplice Myra Hindley lured five small children onto Saddleworth Moor where they were sexually assaulted and murdered. Now, Hindley may have fooled that old charlatan Lord Longford with her sob story about conversion to Christianity before she died but Brady has demonstrated no remorse for his crime and is still very much alive. Declared "criminally insane," and garlanded with so many "rights," he lives in Ashworth Prison where he has access to television, three square meals, and a bath every night - all at taxpayers' expense. His victims, however, remain rotting out on the moors. Is this the exemplar of justice? The maintenance of this man's pathetic life? The Moors Murderers were apprehended shortly after the abolition of capital punishment under the revolutionary Labour government of the mid-1960's*. When confronted with calls for the return of the gallows, the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, a man who did more to ruin this country than either Mrs Thatcher or Mr Blair, airily dismissed them with such arrogance as can scarcely be believed. "I will not change my policy in the shadow of recent events, however horrible," he said. One could well ask, what would change his mind? No prizes for guessing, nothing would.

People say that in such cases as the Moors Murders calls for capital punishment are emotive and vengeful. And well they might be, particularly from the victims' families. But surely one of the purposes of a stern penalty (where it exists) is the prevention of personal revenge? As a civilization, one of the bargains (if you like) we make with our rulers is the relinquishment of the right to seek personal vengeance, and consequently the endless blood feuds that come of that. In return, we ask for our rulers to wield the civil sword and to make "him that doeth evil," as the scripture says, fear the law and to impress upon society the moral lesson that no evil deed will go unpunished. So contrarily, capital punishment is not itself vengeful, it is impartial. And it is not without mercy either. The fact that the hangman said* to the felon before the drop: "God have mercy on your soul," is an indication that the State refers the matter to a higher court in the hope that he, however personally vile or grievous his crime, might be saved, if he truly repented. The alternative, under our enlightened, "civilized," society is for a murderer to go to a prison in which he is likely to be attacked, or even killed, by his fellow inmates (or commit suicide, as happened with Harold Shipman), in the false hope that a brutal prison can help "rehabilitate" him, which seems to be a false hope shared by pope Francis with his silly rhetoric. By eviscerating justice in this way, by going "soft," we have guaranteed personal vengeance and the old blood-feud from savage ages; petty justice carried out by the low against the lower. So much for civilization!

To be continued...

*Actually, the death penalty was severely restricted following the 1957 Homicide Act so there was little possibility of a death sentence for Brady and Hindley anyway.

*UPDATE: See the comments. Fr Anthony Chadwick was kind enough to correct this mistake, written hastily in an afternoon. It was, of course, the judge, and not the hangman, who told the man convicted: "God have mercy on your soul."

11 comments:

  1. You ought to see the film about Albert Pierrepoint at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jN9Oq5yihZY

    It is poignant and shows the stresses caused to the men who have to do the killing. I have often thought about this problem and am very glad not to be responsible for a life and death decision.

    I have often discussed this issue with my wife, who knows a lot about law. My own inclination is that those convicted of "capital" crimes should be deported to penal colonies like Botany Bay or Devil's Island and given the opportunity to expiate and not to be a burden on the taxpayer like in a "normal" prison. Then the convict would have the option of serving his sentence plus his time as a "colonist" or committing suicide by self-hanging or self-guillotining.

    Where could such facilities be installed? Simply the old Russian Gulag camps in Siberia, far away from anything.

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    1. Forgive the late reply, father. I've had Internet connexion problems all afternoon.

      I read about Mr Pierrepoint some years ago. I have great sympathy for him. It is not a job I would put myself down for, and where I have said I would go to executions (were they performed in public), that does not mean that I would be able to pull the lever. What a terrible thing to have to do!

      This is one reason I so admire our Bill of Rights. Hanging seems to me to be the most humane method of execution. The electric chair strikes me as a "cruel and unusual" punishment, and lethal injections are not, as some believe, administered by the most careful of people, and cannot be performed by doctors (for obvious reasons).

      Penal colonies are a nice idea but I am not sure about allowing people the option to commit suicide. Suicide is not an honourable thing.

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  2. The death penalty affords the convicted felon an opportunity which most of us will never have. He/she knows in advance the day and hour of his/her death, therefore giving him/her, if he/she so chooses, the possibility of repentance and absolution. Encouraging the felon to commit suicide would only further his/her chances of eternal damnation.
    I'm pleased to say my state practices the death penalty, unfortunately not as swiftly and as frequently as Texas.

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    1. The death penalty doesn't really exist in America anymore. It may still be on the books but it is certainly not carried out very often and where it is the average waiting time between conviction and death is 10 years, what with the appeal process and lobbyists. Hardly seems worthwhile to me.

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  3. The fact that the hangman said to the felon before the drop: "God have mercy on your soul," is an indication...

    He didn't. The judge did. The hangman said something like "Follow me, lad, I'll look after you". With Pierrepoint, the inmate was pinioned on the stroke of eight o'clock and was dead before the bell finished ringing. That's how efficient it was. Pierrepoint simply said "There's no point in prolonging the suffering".

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    1. My mistake. I wrote this post in twenty minutes or so, if you can believe it!

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  4. What has always surprised me is that those who are so adamantly pro-abortion are almost always opposed to the death penalty.

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    1. Yes, it does seem incongruous for people to advocate jealous safeguarding of the evil and the arbitrary massacre of the innocent.

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  5. But what of cases such as the 'Birmingham Six' or 'Guildford Four'? I am loathe to agree with anything Michael Howard has said but he changed his mind over capital punishment after the outcome of the judicial process with these two groups of men. If a modern day Pierrepoint had despatched them after their original trials is a posthumous pardon really adequate?

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    1. Which is why every possible step should be taken to ensure that the man at the gallows is guilty. With the many advances in forensic investigation and technology in the last fifty years I think wrongful conviction is considerably less likely than it was aforetime.

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  6. Fr George Rutler wrote a fine article on this point of yours, Patrick, several years ago:

    http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/hanging-concentrates-the-mind

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