Capital punishment is one of those issues which creates difficulty for liberals, rather like the Algerian elections a number of years back, in which a democratic election seemed likely to lead to the election of a political faction which was campaigning on a ticket of, among other things, banning elections. In the case of capital punishment, it seems fairly well- established that a referendum on the topic in this country would lead to the return of the death penalty. For someone like me, who believes firmly in democracy but abhors capital punishment, this creates a problem. What, as they say, is a woolly liberal to do?
in this debate there are well-worn arguments for and against. For everyone who claims that it acts as a deterrent, there is someone else who can point to the fact that murders don’t go up when it’s abolished. For every plea for mercy there is a counter-argument that it costs the state millions to keep murderers in prison for life. It gives victims’ families closure? On the other hand, vengeance doesn’t bring peace. It’s used disproportionately against the poor and disadvantaged? Well, maybe they’re the ones committing more crimes. It shouldn’t be available for crimes of passion or when someone kills in self-defence? No, but surely we can all agree that child and cop-killers should get the death penalty.
Each side persists in believing, perhaps naively, that there is one knock- out argument that will silence the other side and win the debate. During the House of Commons debate on the abolition of the death penalty in 1969 (interesting to me that it was that late, as I had thought it was earlier; in fact it was “suspended” (unfortunate choice of word) in 1965 and abolished completely in 1969) one MP who supported capital punishment dealt with the wrongful conviction argument by announcing triumphantly that he would be personally prepared to execute someone and then live with the subsequent knowledge that they had been wrongly convicted. An opposing MP pointed out politely that it was not so much whether he felt that a reasonable price to pay for maintaining the death penalty was a personal willingness to execute someone wrongly; he should rather be expressing a personal willingness to be wrongfully executed.
My own feeling is that the arguments, whilst obviously important, are not germane to the outcome. People make a decision based on gut feeling; they either think it’s OK, or they think it’s not OK, and then they marshall the arguments to support that emotional decision. It basically comes down to whether or not you consider it basically a thinkable thing to do.