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The case for capital punishment - The Telegraph - Simon Heffer - 23 Nov 2005
About 15 years ago I found myself at a conference of those with an interest in matters of law and order. I am, to this day, not sure why I was asked, other than inadvertently to provide light entertainment.
After a few hours in the company of probation officers, criminologists, a few prototypes of what we now know as the Politically Correct Senior Policeman and various others from the rehabilitation industry, I realised I would probably feel less out of place at a Tibetan religious festival. It may be uncouth, but I always feel pronounced prickles of discomfort when in the presence of those who devote themselves to making the lives of the downright wicked as comfortable as possible.
We waltzed into a plenary session about the need to curb serious crime - murder, rape, armed robbery, drugs trafficking, all those little things that make life in our inner cities so vibrant today. When I uttered the fact - not at that stage reinforced by an expression of opinion, but simply a fact - that the murder rate had quadrupled since the abolition of capital punishment, an embarrassed silence permeated the room. It was as if my personal hygiene had suddenly taken a turn very much for the worse.
Afterwards, however, I was approached by a meek, mild little gentleman, who turned out to be a Professor of Ethics at one of America's leading universities, and an adviser retained by the police departments of several major cities. He wanted to apologise to me for not having spoken up in my support, but explained that he had felt intimidated by the weight of liberal opinion engulfing us.
As we shook hands and I urged him not to be concerned, he told me a story. "Of course capital punishment works. In China recently they had a drug problem. One day, they took out 6,000 drug dealers and shot them in the back of the head. The result: they don't now have a drug problem."
Now before you reach for your pens or your computer keyboards, I should clarify that I am not advocating the mass slaughter of criminals in this country, agreeable though that might be to many people. We are not a repressive or barbaric state, at least not yet. The rule of law suggests that we do things more moderately here: but many would, equally, say too moderately.
When Lord Stevens, the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, argued on Sunday that his opposition to capital punishment had been overturned by the shooting of a policewoman in Bradford last week, he was joining that usually silent band of intelligent people who feel that society affords inadequate protection to the innocent. And, predictably, he has been vilified for it by a noisy minority who, in the security of their comfortable existences, feel that anyone even suggesting the restoration of a death penalty for murder in this country must be certifiably insane or a complete pervert.
I regret that Lord Stevens did not advocate this course when he still held his high office, for his opinion then would have counted for far more. After all, plenty of police officers were murdered on his watch while trying to do their jobs, like poor WPc Beshenivsky last week. I also disagree with him on one point: why argue for restoration purely for those who murder police officers?
Why is that a more heinous crime, or more deserving of the ultimate penalty, than (for example) the slaying of two little girls in a school caretaker's house, or the shooting of a woman jeweller by those who have determined to rob her - to cite just two shocking crimes of the past two or three years? Is there not a new cheapness of human life, bred by the easy availability of illegal firearms and a lack of deterrence from using them, and do not all potential victims deserve an equal protection from the state against it?
For, be in no doubt, although we forfeited 40 years ago the right of the state to impose the capital sentence after a fair trial in a court of law, the state still reserves to itself the right to take life. Ask, for example, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, shot dead by agents of the state in July this year when he was mistaken for a suicide bomber.
However awful the consequences of such an error, the state must continue to have our power, as part of its duty of protecting us. Yet we have, since 1965, been in the ironic position of having outlawed execution with trial, but continuing to permit execution without trial. I suppose there is a logic there, but I can't see it.
The murder of WPc Beshenivsky has brought renewed calls for the police to be armed: these calls, given the practice common in other Western societies, are likely to become overwhelming. However, various consequences would flow from arming the police that might prove harder for society to deal with than the simple restoration of a death penalty.
It would probably encourage criminals to arm themselves more routinely, so as to stand a sporting chance against robocop. Innocents would be killed in the crossfire or, as in the case of the unfortunate Mr de Menezes, by mistake. There would be justified calls for tough mandatory sentences for those who carry arms, whether they use them or not: but with many quite serious murderers being released from jail after 14 or 15 years, even the most stupid criminal would probably reason that he had nothing to lose by pulling the trigger, since he would stand to be punished just as severely for not doing so.
No: heavier sentences for those who carry arms, which are certainly justified, only work if there is an even stronger sanction - the penalty of death - for those who kill in the course of criminal activities. And if you have a death penalty, you don't need to make our society even more dangerous, and our police held in even more suspicion than they are now, by arming officers on the beat.
This, though, is where politics comes in. After 1965, restorationists faced the immovable obstacle of liberal opinion, enthroned as it was in government, Parliament and in the offices of the sages of the quality press. It little matters to these controlling forces of power and influence that every opinion poll shows a huge majority in favour of the return of capital punishment. That majority is, in their view, comprised of the ignorant, the vicious, the unthinking, and all those other adjectives that make up that supremely patronising term of abuse, "saloon bar opinion".
As far as the governing class is concerned, they will continue to favour rehabilitation over punishment. And, as they do, the governed for their part will obligingly fulfil their part of the deal, and continue to be murdered.
However, even if the elected representatives of the British people were to have a moment of revelation, and see just how their liberal experiment has failed, they would be powerless to reverse the process of appeasement that they so wilfully initiated. Our position as a member of the European Union now precludes us from using capital punishment. Those who mourn WPc Beshenivsky can add to the list of her murderers the high contracting powers of the EU, who dictate to a supposedly sovereign and independent nation rules about not just how it can punish its criminals, but what lengths it may go to protect its people.
That is why Lord Stevens, and those who think like him, have no chance for the foreseeable future of having their restorationist wishes granted. Indeed, it is why there isn't really any point in having a debate about it - which is why the outrage provoked by the death of one exceptionally brave woman should serve to remind us not just of her sacrifice, or of the evil of her murderers, but of our own fundamental impotence in trying to do anything about the forces that slew her.
If, over the next few years, the supply of cheap and illegal arms from Eastern Europe and the bandit states of the former Soviet Union continues to grow at the rate it lately has, the practice of random, casual shooting will become a normal part of our lives. Our police will be armed, but that will only feed the appetite.
On the advice of their spin-doctors, the rhetoric of politicians will become more and more tabloid in its vehemence. Home secretaries, and even perhaps prime ministers, will attend funerals and utter profound words of condemnation.
Yet, in time, such murder will be so widespread that it almost ceases to be reported. And only then will some radical politician reluctantly admit that capital punishment is the alternative to scrapping the rule of law.
Why capital punishment can no longer be dismissed - The Telegraph - Simon Heffer - 23 July 2000