New Internationalist

Death, justice and the big questions

Sometimes a crime is so horrific as to produce a seismic effect. It sends rippling across our collective consciousness the singular demand – for justice to be served by removing the criminal from the world of the living.

The Breivik case involves just such a crime. As the TV stations reeled out the seemingly never-ending series of faces, most of them children or young adults, it was impossible not to be struck by their aura of youth. They resonate as individuals stood on the cusp of the future, and morbid though it may be, it is hard not to wonder who they may have become, or what they would have gone on to achieve.

In light of this, the reaction of Norway’s president to the Breivik trial is all the more remarkable. Whereas many heads of state might have used the national mood of shock and outrage as an opportunity to grandstand, Jen Stoltenberg’s reaction was measured, motivated by a deep melancholia rather than the incendiary desire for revenge. He did not clamour for the death penalty, in fact he didn’t even call for the toughening of criminal law more broadly, rather he suggested the reverse, urging people toward ‘more democracy, more openness’.

Last month, and in response to the Breivik trial, the BBC programme The Big Questions held a death penalty debate. The anti-capital punishment brigade went to work straight away quickly deploying their flagship argument, highlighting the reason the penalty was abolished in the UK in the first place i.e. the hanging of the innocent and mentally-challenged teenager Derek Bentley.

Moreover, they stipulated, such miscarriages of justice occur with alarming regularity in the areas of the world where the death penalty is still in force. Their argument was fortified in a provocative and unexpected manner, for they had in their number one Michael O’Brien who himself spent 11 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The 11 years is shocking in itself, but the awareness that the person you were watching in real time would now be in the ground had not the capital legislation been repealed was what really provoked a shudder. All at once the discussion seemed to move beyond the to and fro of intellectual point scoring. Imbued with an ominous gravitas, the whole theme suddenly became ‘real’.

It is a credit to the conservative journalist Peter Hitchens that he was able to confront head on the controversy of innocent lives lost due to capital punishment. Hitchens did not deny that a sizeable proportion of people had lost their lives this way nor did he attempt to argue future tweaking of the justice system would necessarily ameliorate such terrible outcomes (though he suggested such avenues should be explored).

In fact Hitchens claimed something more fundamental. Only a naive, unadulterated pacifism would fail to acknowledge that the ability for a given society to sustain goes hand in hand with certain unpalatable concessions. The struggle against the Nazis, for example, presupposed the wilful bombing and destruction of large swathes of civilian populations: the ‘necessity’ for such killing flowed inexorably from the perilous nature of the historical situation.

On a smaller scale, Hitchens suggested, this is exactly what the issue of the death penalty boils down to. The argument about capital punishment cannot be resolved by recourse to some abstract moral principle but must be derived from the living reality. According to Hitchens, the chaotic and fragmented nature of the modern world requires the death-deterrent in order that the principle of life remain sacrosanct: the ultimate crime must as well be limited by the ultimate punishment.

Such po-faced utilitarianism might be more persuasive if it wasn’t for the fact that, in the United States at least, the majority of criminologists simply don’t believe that the death penalty reduces the murder rate. In the US it is the South which is responsible for 80 per cent of executions yet the same region also experiences the highest murder rate.

But there is a problem with Hitchens’s argument which reaches beyond the statistics.

The idea that the more punitive the state is, the more it lowers the levels of crime in society misses something important. The prison system, however brutal and ineffective, still has the result of binding the social individual to the state – a prolonged existence in which the one continues to stand in relation to the other.

In fact some argue the relation of the individual to the state is constitutive of society itself. And in severing that relation – say organizations such as Amnesty International – the state is not only brutalizing a criminal, but is ‘brutalizing’ society therein. Such a state is increasingly experienced as a power set against society and because of this, its organic connection with the social whole is inexorably weakened.

The state which employs the death penalty, therefore, is also one which has lost a point of contact with its citizenry. As a result the ability of the judicial power to empathize with or even comprehend those it comes into contact with is inevitably lessened. For this reason it is not entirely accidental that the death penalty is still used against people who have the mental age of a child.

And this is why Jen Stoltenberg and his liberal demand for ‘more democracy, more openness’ infers something more than an abstract and idealist principle. Such humanitarianism has an eminently practical character too in as much as it allows a higher level of social cohesion, ultimately setting the basis for less crime, not more.

Tony writes about cultural and political issues from a left standpoint, and regularly contributes to The Huffington Post.

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  1. #1 Peter Hitchens 10 May 12

    An interesting post, but the author may have got me slightly wrong . 'Hitchens did not deny that a sizeable proportion of people had lost their lives this way'

    I reply : Well , I wasn't asked to deny it. I would doubt that it was a 'sizeable proportion'. .
    He then misunderstood my point on bombing. My position is not quite as described. I am opposed to and frequently condemn the deliberate killing of civilians which was resorted to on the advice of Lord Cherwell when it was plain that the RAF could not hit military targets with any precision (see my blog for much material on this) The issue arises when civilians die because unavoidable military operations took place near where they were, and their unintended deaths were caused as a result, though they were regretted and unwished by those who launched those attacks. That is the type of unintended death of innocents with which the unintended death of innocents through execution can be compared.

    The writer then continues 'According to Hitchens, the chaotic and fragmented nature of the modern world requires the death-deterrent in order that the principle of life remain sacrosanct: the ultimate crime must as well be limited by the ultimate punishment.

    I reply: Actually, that is not my argument. I do think that life is immensely more important than property, and that the taking of life , under certain heinous circumstances, should be punishable (though not invariably punished)by execution after due process, and proper independent jury trial with the presumption of innocence in a free country with a free and independent press. My main reason for this view is moral, but there is also a practical effect, of deterrence, which is not to be lightly dismissed.

    The writer then accuses me of 'po-faced utilitarianism ' . This surely the opposite of my position.

    He then makes the standard thoght-free abolitionist claimn that the death penalty doesn't deter in the USA. I answer : The writer loftily describes my view, but is not aware of my often-repeated point that the death penalty does not really exist in the USA, as , even in those states which have it on their statutes, it is very seldom exercised. Even when it is, the execution is usually at least ten years after the crime. Murderers are more likely to die of old age on death row than be executed, even in Texas, and when they are executed, they may well have forgotten what it was they did. This is not a functioning or rigorously-applied death penalty, and it would be absurd to expect it to have any significant deterrent effect. There has been research showing a possible mild deterrent effect in urban Houston, but I am increasingly sceptical of its value. I think climate probably has more influence over the murder rates of US states than a death penalty which is rarely, inconsistently and belatedly applied.

    The writer then states:'The prison system, however brutal and ineffective, still has the result of binding the social individual to the state; a prolonged existence in which the one continues to stand in relation to the other.'

    I reply. 'I am not sure what this actually means. I am not even sure whether itis psychobabble or sociobabble, though I am sure it isn't English. It is however demonstrable ( see my 2003 book 'A Brief History of Crime' and the chapter in it called Cruel and Unusual, that violent crime in this country rose during the suspensions of the death penalty in 1948 and 1956, and fell again when those suspensions ended. Other interesting reflections on the effect of a death penalty on violent crime and the use by criminals of lethal weapons (its main deterrent force) are to be found in the book.

  2. #2 Tony 10 May 12

    Thanks for the response. As you might expect, there are several things I'd want to pick up on in your reply.
    You write:

    'He then misunderstood my point on bombing. My position is not quite as described. I am opposed to and frequently condemn the deliberate killing of civilians which was resorted to on the advice of Lord Cherwell when it was plain that the RAF could not hit military targets with any precision.'

    The misunderstanding is on your side, I'm afraid. In conveying your point of view - I wrote that 'the struggle against the Nazi's presupposed the wilful bombing and destruction of large swathes of civilian populations'. If I have misconstrued you, then, by logical implication you believe the Second World War could have been fought without the 'destruction of large swathes of civilian populations'. In other words you are guilty of the same naivety you so lucidly pin-point in others.

    The questions you raise as to whether a particular military action is justified are, of course, extremely important; but they have no place in the discussion here, and only serve to blur the issue. Whether individual operations should have taken place or not (and I agree with you 100% re Lord Cherwell), this does not alter the fact that bombing against civilian populations would have remained a necessary and broad measure in any event.

    Later still I try to summarise the implications of your argument. In so doing I write:

    'Modern life requires the death-deterrent in order that the principle of life remain sacrosanct: the ultimate crime must as well be limited by the ultimate punishment.'

    You demur - saying this is not your 'argument'; because:

    'I do think that life is immensely more important than property, and that the taking of life, under certain heinous circumstances, should be punishable (though not invariably punished) by execution after due process, and proper independent jury trial with the presumption of innocence in a free country with a free and independent press.'

    Again, you have generated a smoke screen which obscures the details of the argument. You believe `life is immensely more important than property`; well where have I said you don't? You argue for 'proper independent jury trial'; but again where have I suggested otherwise? Once more these things are important issues, but they do not speak to the subject matter in my actual article. The only thing you do say here which relates to the substance of the article is that 'the taking of life, under certain heinous circumstances, should be punishable (though not invariably punished) by execution'. But that is more or less identical with what I said in the first place when I referred to 'the ultimate crime'; to be limited by the 'ultimate punishment'; i.e. that crime which is most 'heinous'.

    You go on to say:

    'He then makes the standard thought-free abolitionist claim that the death penalty doesn't deter in the USA. I answer : The writer loftily describes my view, but is not aware of my often-repeated point that the death penalty does not really exist in the USA, as , even in those states which have it on their statutes, it is very seldom exercised.'

    Here the polemical flourish 'thought free' - only serves to cloud matters. You describe the claim that 'the death penalty doesn't deter in the USA; as 'thought free'. But instead of elaborating on this you at once veer off on a tangent, ignoring the question of deterrent in favour of the one of existence: 'the death penalty does not really exist in the USA.'

    Later you return to the theme of deterrent once more; when you write of Texas 'this is not a functioning or rigorously-applied death penalty, and it would be absurd to expect it to have any significant deterrent effect'. Moments after you say of Houston - 'There has been research showing a possible mild deterrent effect in urban Houston, but I am increasingly sceptical of its value.' Instead of demonstrating the claim that 'the death penalty doesn't deter in the USA; is a 'thought-free' one; you seem to have validated it.

    Oh and incidentally, the notion of the non-existence of the penalty in the USA is a flimsy one. Do horrific things like paedophilia not really exist simply because a tiny minority are subject to them? If the death penalty 'does not really exist in the USA', it must come as something of a shock to those people who are the recipients of it. Then again, they don't really exist anymore either, do they?

  3. #3 Peter Hitchens 11 May 12

    First part:

    Tony says that :
    'by logical implication you believe the Second World War could have been fought without the ’destruction of large swathes of civilian populations’. In other words you are guilty of the same naivety you so lucidly pin-point in others.'
    No. I distinguish between genuinely unavoidable civilian deaths, during military engagements between armed forces, and the deliberate 'dehousing' policy pursued by Lindemann and Harris, the whole point of which was to kill large numbers of civilians and/or ruin their lives. The war could and should have been fought without such methods (see A.C.Grayling's excellent book 'Among the Dead Cities'; for what I regard as a definitive refutation of the claim that the Harris policy was militarily justifiable). Civilised countries had never before adopted such methods in warfare., and indeed at the start of the 1939-45 war Britain's political leadership specifically ruled them out.

  4. #4 Peter Hitchens 11 May 12

    Second part: . My objection was to the description of my case as **po-faced utilitarianism** There are utilitarian elements in my argument, mainly the case that the death penalty deters the use of violence and the carrying of lethal weapons by criminals. But it is not utilitarian to say that the taking of life is sometime is so heinous that it demands a penalty quite different from those imposed for other crimes. This, however, cannot be defended as a deterrent, as it plainly does not deter all murder, or it could never actually be imposed. It is a moral point.

    I do elaborate on the absence of thought in the boilerplate claim that the death penalty in the USA doesn't deter, therefore deterrence is proved untrue. The point is that the penalty is not applied consistently, speedily or particularly widely.

    As for this passage ** Do horrific things like paedophilia not really exist simply because a tiny minority are subject to them? If the death penalty 'does not really exist in the USA', it must come as something of a shock to those people who are the recipients of it. Then again, they don't really exist anymore either, do they? ** it is plain silly and not an answer to my point.

    The facts are these . A small minority of murderers are executed in a very small number of states, many years after their crimes. My argument is that this cannot honestly or accurately be described as a functioning death penalty in practice.

    Compare (the figures are in my book) the operation of the penalty in Britain before it was weakened to the point of inanity in 1957. Also, if you like, compare the operation of the penalty in pre-abolition America. On 15th February 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt was shot at by Giuseppe Zangara in Miami, Florida. Zangara missed Roosevelt, but hit Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago, who was standing next to FDR. Cermak died of his wounds on March 6th. Zangara pleaded guilty to murder, and was executed ten days later. Time from murder conviction to execution , 14 days. That's a death penalty. What the USA has now is random judicial killing.

  5. #5 Tony 11 May 12

    Again thanks for the response. I regret, however, that so much of it clearly involves pummelling a straw man. For instance:

    Tony says that:
    ’by logical implication you believe the Second World War could have been fought without the ’destruction of large swathes of civilian populations’. In other words you are guilty of the same naivety you so lucidly pin-point in others.’

    No. I distinguish between genuinely unavoidable civilian deaths, during military engagements between armed forces, and the deliberate ’dehousing’ policy pursued by Lindemann and Harris, the whole point of which was to kill large numbers of civilians and/or ruin their lives.

    Let's be clear. All I have done is to pose the following question do you believe that the bombing and killing of civilians was a necessary measure in the Second World War? Either you do or you don't. Your comment regarding the fight against the Nazis on the Big Questions seems to suggest that that you do. You distinguish between ’genuinely unavoidable civilian deaths’.and the deliberate ’dehousing’ policy. While this is certainly an important and admirable distinction to draw - IT DOES NOT RELATE TO WHAT I AM SAYING IN THE SLIGHTEST.

    On the Big Questions a commentator referenced the innocent lives lost as a result of capital punishment ’so as to bolster the anti-capital punishment line. In response you brought in the struggle against the Nazis in order to demonstrate, I presume, that the abstract moral principle ’thou shalt not kill’ cannot be absolutised; indeed, under certain ’hideous circumstances’, it must be contravened in order to secure the greater good.

    On that programme (and it is the programme I refer to in the article, not your book) you resorted to this type of argument, which, as I have pointed out, has a utilitarian character. I have said no more than this. All your references to the modes and forms of killing during the war, while interesting in themselves, are merely deflections for they have no bearing on any argument I have made. And yet you persevere:

    As for this passage ** Do horrific things like paedophilia not really exist simply because a tiny minority are subject to them? If the death penalty 'does not really exist in the USA', it must come as something of a shock to those people who are the recipients of it. Then again, they don't really exist anymore either, do they? ** it is plain silly and not an answer to my point.

    The facts are these. A small minority of murderers are executed in a very small number of states, many years after their crimes. My argument is that this cannot honestly or accurately be described as a functioning death penalty in practice.

    I don't think you are doing yourself any favours by dismissing legitimate worries about state sponsored execution as ’silly’. More importantly, though, your argument here is blatantly illogical. You argue ’a small minority of murderers are executed this cannot honestly or accurately be described as a functioning death penalty in practice.’ In reducing what execution is to an empty principle of quantity ’small minority’ - your position becomes untenable. Using the same logic I could argue that only a ’small minority’ of people in society are convicted of crimes, therefore we do not have a ’functioning’ criminal system in ’practise’. Such an argument would, of course, be absurd.

    Later you write:

    ’Zangara pleaded guilty to murder, and was executed ten days later. Time from murder conviction to execution, 14 days. That's a death penalty. What the USA has now is random judicial killing.’

    I must say that I find this to be the most bizarre argument of all. The idea that the death penalty is ’random’ simply because there is a longer space of time before it is exacted is strange to say the least. Surely it would be random only in a cases where it was used against random members of the population, irrespective of any genuine crime. I have in mind here populations across which the shadow of a totalitarian regime has fallen, like Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany. In fact it seems to me that the death penalty in the USA is anything but ’random’ in as much as it is used disproportionality against poor people, and poor black people in particular. I'm afraid that your distinction between ’a death penalty’ and ’random judicial killing’ exists in form alone, and is meaningless to wit.

  6. #6 Peter Hitchens 12 May 12

    Further response 1, 12th May :
    I will have to leave it to third parties (if there are any) to judge whether my point RELATES TO WHAT TONY IS SAYING IN THE SLIGHTEST. In my view it does. In his, for reasons I genuinely cannot fathom, it does not.

    Let me try again. If there is any distinction between the conscious and deliberate killing of civilians through repeated heavy night-bombing of residential quarters (as practised by Arthur Harris at the urging of Lord Cherwell), and the unintended undesired killing of civilians, by shells, bombs, bullets, fire, drowning, crushing etc, in military clashes between opposing forces whose main purpose was the destruction of the other side’s armed forces, then it does.

    For the DELIBERATE AND CONSCIOUS (these capitals are catching) killing of innocent civilians is quite distinct from the UNINTENDED killing of innocent civilians. The first is not comparable with the unintended execution of innocents. The second is. Hence my distinction. And if I am asked to answer the question … do you believe that the bombing and killing of civilians was a necessary measure in the Second World War?... ( and I have been asked it) then I cannot answer it without making this distinction. Some of those deaths were necessary (the unintended ones). Some of them were not (the intended ones). I do think it extraordinarily obtuse of Tony to refuse to see this.

  7. #7 Peter Hitchens 12 May 12

    Further Response 2. 12th May

    And again, Tony seems quite unable to grasp the point I am making about execution.

    If a large proportion of convicted murderers are executed soon after their trials and convictions, then a death penalty can be said to exist as a practical, demonstrable fact.

    If most murder convictions , even especially heinous ones, do not result, in any jurisdiction, in execution; if the executions which do take place are of a small minority of convicted murderers; if those executions take place many years after the crime and conviction – THEN (more capitals) it can be argued ( I do argue) that, while some individual executions are taking pace, they have no moral or deterrent significance. A credible death penalty, with any likelihood of influencing the behaviour of potential murderers, does not exist.
    This is the most important way in which the paedophile analogy does not work. To be a PENALTY it has to have certain characteristics, including the likelihood that it will be employed.

    I don’t mind arguing (say) about at what point a random, arbitrary, long-delayed and statistically minor use of execution might be transformed into an effective death penalty. We could communicate over that. But I could only argue that with someone who was prepared to think about it. And Tony isn’t. In fact he is determined NOT to think. Rather than see any force in my case, he pretends that he cannot understand it (I don’t doubt that he believes in his pretence and believes that it is not a pretence. He is not consciously dodging. But he is dodging). The facts being almost invariably conservative, and logic even more so, left-liberals have developed many devices by which they can subconsciously close their minds to facts or syllogisms they don’t like.

  8. #8 Peter Hitchens 12 May 12

    Further Response 3. 12th May

    Tony raises the disproportionality argument. Well, I wonder if he has checked to see if murder rates among poor black people are also disproportionately high. If they are, then that would explain the disproportionately high use of the death penalty against them. If not, then we must seek another explanation. Speaking for myself, I am an equal opportunity executioner. If we aren’t executing enough white, rich murderers, then let’s execute more of them.

    But I doubt very much if that would satisfy Tony , whose real problem is a dislike of two concepts – one of direct, unavoidable personal responsibility for one’s actions, and two, to the belief that man has an immortal soul as well as a life, and may be judged according to eternal, as well as temporal standards. These are the real differences between the left-liberal and the social conservative, and they arise forma profound difference about the nature and purpose (if there is one) of the universe. Annoyingly, I am prepared to concede that he may be right, and that his motives are good. He, by contrast, regards me as wicked simply for holding my opinions.

    It is once again obtuse not to see that the application of the death penalty to a minuscule minority of murderers, long after their crimes and with no identifiable unifying feature distinguishing those executed form those spared, is random by definition.

    The point about the execution of Zangara is that I believe such swift executions were then typical, though I have so far been unable to find statistics for the period. It certainly isn’t typical of now. Currently there are about 15,000 murders each year in the USA. Even at their modern peak around the year 2000, the number of death sentences never rose above about 3,500 a year. Actual Executions never rose above 100 after restoration of the penalty in 1976 (ie about 5% of those sentenced) . Numbers of executions in the 1930s were considerably higher , rising to nearly 200 a year in 1935 and then falling to zero (in a sharp downward curve) by abolition in 1972, though there was a surge in the mid-1940s. I have no pre-1950 figures on death sentences, or on murders.

    I believe the numbers of suspects shot dead by police or householders, ruled as justifiable homicide, runs to several hundred per year in the USA. These are a form of execution, without due process or appeal, and in my view a direct result of the weakening of the death penalty. But nobody except me seems to care about them at all. Such killings (by police at least) are also on the rise in Britain.

  9. #9 Tony 13 May 12

    Me again! In your most recent contribution, Peter, you write:

    ‘do you believe that the bombing and killing of civilians was a necessary measure in the Second World War?... ( and I have been asked it) then I cannot answer it without making this distinction. Some of those deaths were necessary (the unintended ones). Some of them were not (the intended ones). I do think it extraordinarily obtuse of Tony to refuse to see this.’

    Haven t refused to see it. Do see it. Agree with it. But, even in making the distinction, your answer to my question remains yes – yes, civilian (albeit unintended) deaths are necessary. This is the view I attributed to you in the first place. It is the view you hold to.

    You stipulate:

    ‘If a large proportion of convicted murderers are executed soon after their trials and convictions, then a death penalty can be said to exist as a practical, demonstrable fact.’
    ‘soon after’ seems to beg the question. Particularly in light of this:

    ‘I believe the numbers of suspects shot dead by police or householders, ruled as justifiable homicide, runs to several hundred per year in the USA. These are a form of execution, without due process or appeal’

    Your appeal to ‘due process and appeal’ seems somewhat contradictory for this reason – the pressure to execute criminals ‘soon after’, which is your first stipulation, would automatically militate against the second – the need for ‘due process and appeal.’ How can one have due process and appeal if the only way for the death penalty to ‘exist’ is for it to be exacted ‘soon after’?

    But you go further. You argue that a death penalty which is not exacted ‘soon after’ is not a ‘credible’ death penalty at all. You say such a death penalty does not really exist as a ‘practical, demonstratable fact’. I have already questioned the sanity of such a position. But let me do you the service of assuming its truth. Even with such an assumption, another problem arises. You argue that the criminal who knows they will not be ‘executed soon after their trial’ will not be adequately deterred. But how do they arrive at that knowledge? You, Peter, are in possession of it for you have researched and written a book on the subject. The criminal (I presume) has not.

    Perhaps the average criminal is aware of this ‘laxity’ on the state’s part – because they have family or friends who have ‘enjoyed’ a similar period of state maintained solace before being severed from existence. But you have already said that executions are so insignificant in number in the first place that we can hardly assume such a generalised knowledge about the mechanics of execution on the part of the criminal population.

    I am certain most criminals will know whether or not the death penalty is in effect in the region in which they operate. But the hidden assumption in your argument imparts to the generic criminal a level of knowledge (awareness of average length of time before excecution) he or she very likely doesn’t have.

    In fact, thinking about it – you yourself haven’t been precise on the question. You have said that the (most reprehensible) criminals should be killed ‘soon after their trials and convictions’. Would you care to put a bracket on the time scale Peter?

  10. #10 Tony 14 May 12

    My second response. You write:

    ‘Tony raises the disproportionality argument. Well, I wonder if he has checked to see if murder rates among poor black people are also disproportionately high. If they are, then that would explain the disproportionately high use of the death penalty against them.’

    I have been well aware that the murder rates among poor black people in the US are disproportionately high for a while. But, by employing that particular deflection, you also expose the central contradiction your position entails. The fact of the high murder rate, you say - ‘would explain the disproportionately high use of the death penalty against them.’ A circular argument if ever there was one! You have already argued that the death penalty reduces crime when it is used frequently and with the shorter period of elapsed time between conviction and execution.

    And it is used most frequently against blacks, and the time between conviction rate and execution is shortest on average among the same demographic. We should, according to your logic, expect to see a lowered murder rate here. But we see the extreme opposite. And from this contradictory result – rather than recognising a negation of your argument - you instead manage to adduce the need to use the death penalty against ‘them’ in the first place – ‘that would explain the disporoportinately high use of the death penalty against them’
    Such a contradiction inheres in your position because it also inheres in the reality in which capital punishment is applied.

  11. #11 Tony 14 May 12

    You go on to say:

    ‘Speaking for myself, I am an equal opportunity executioner. If we aren’t executing enough white, rich murderers, then let’s execute more of them.’

    I appreciate the sentiments in this. But it is hopelessly naive. If you were in charge, even though I disagree with the form of punishment you advocate, I am sure you would (god help them) go after white, rich criminals too. But you are not in charge. Your moral compass has little bearing on the world at large.

    A writer, though I forget who, once wrote something which really got stuck in my head. It was along the lines of - ‘If the police found a poor man sleeping under a bridge or a rich one – they would tell both to sling their hook because the law is impartial.’ Factually the statement is correct, I think – but the interesting thing about it, is how it leads us inevitably toward a more profound thought – i.e. the realisation that no rich man is going to be discovered sleeping under the bridge in the first place.

    I don’t think you are ‘wicked’ Peter – quite the contrary – you argue eloquently and persuasively for a position a great number of people find repugnant - because you believe it to be beneficial for us all in the greater scheme of things.

    But you are hampered by the narrowness of your conservatism in as much as it will never allow you to see that fundamental structural differences, inequalities, relations of exploitation and so on – do in fact play a profound and, ultimately, decisive role in determining who ends up sleeping under that bridge.

    It is not enough that you would like white wealthy criminals to be subject to the same punishments as poor black ones. Reality remains utterly indifferent to your whimsy Peter. The only thing which can ensure genuine equality with regard to crime and punishment is a transformation of the most fundamental divisions between social groups, so that the focus doesn’t fall disproportionately on some rather than others.

    This is why the social movements which are erupting across the globe are so profoundly important – not because as a ‘liberal’ I think they are ‘right on’ but because they contain within themselves the ability to transform society en masse.

    But all this remains necessarily invisible to you – or if not invisible – the province of some woolly touchy feely political correctness which you have made it your life’s work to refute.

    What remains to you, therefore, as a person who is genuinely concerned about justice - will always and necessarily be only the external form of it – only a formal equality before the law. And when crime increases, you will not perceive in this the result of the ever increasing divide between wealth and poverty accentuated by an economic crisis created by a predatory financial system.

    For you the remedy can only appear as a need to tighten the law, and further brutalise those sections of the population who have already been squeezed to breaking point. Though you are unaware of it, this is the reason why you so ardently yearn for the death penalty.

    Perhaps you are wincing now, if indeed you have even made it this far into my reply. Everything I have said must sound like ideological white noise to you - an indistinct but unremitting leftist bleating. I am guilty as charged when it comes to being a leftist Peter - but a liberal, please!

  12. #12 Petr Hitchens 14 May 12

    I think any fair-minded reader will see that Tony is missing my point, and cannot therefore respond properly to it. This is a pity, but until he can get past this obstacle(mainly the inability to see that an inconsistent, small-scale and long-delayed use of execution is not a functioning death penalty and cannot be expected to have any deterrent effect by any reasonable or konwledgeable or thoughtful person. Therefore his argument falls) I cannot really continue the argument until he can force himself to get over this.

    It was Anatole France who said that the poor and the rich were equally free to sleep under bridges. That was in another age. It seems to me to be quite obscene to pretend that real starvation poverty exists in the elaborate welfare systems of rich western countries (in which I very much include post-LBJ America). Visit an African township, or a Bombay slum to see actual poverty. Also, it insults the poor, most of whom live honest, kind and generous lives, to suggest that their condition is an excuse for evil.

  13. #13 Sam Galgerud 02 May 16

    Everyone must agree that some margin of risk of punishing an innocent person exists.
    The death penalty debate is more an issue with determining the extent of that margin of risk. The irreversibility of the punishment has absolutely no baring.

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