Thursday, March 04, 2004

Sentinel of Liberty

"Deserve to die? I daresay he does."


I do not believe in the Marvel Comics view of morality. If Captain America had socked Hitler on the jaw, it would have made no difference. It would be nice to think that Nazism was the fault of one super villain, but it wasn't.

A school teacher who boasts that he never raises a hand to a child but sends brats to the headmaster to be thumped is no different from one that administers clips round the ear with his own chalk stained hands.
A headmaster who says truthfully that this hurts me far more than it hurts you is no different from a sadistic flogger.
Albert Pierrpoint claimed to oppose the death penalty, but not to be morally responsible for all the trap doors he sprung, because they would have been sprung anyway, by someone else. He was a hypocritical mass-murderer. (The judges, lawyers, editors and voters who allowed him to continue his trade were more or less sincere accessories to mass murder.)

Shit happens.
Shit is going to carry on happening whoever is prime minister, and who ever is president. Shit is going to carry on happening regardless of how many super villains we defeat.
However good the health service becomes, people will carry on getting sick and dying.
However efficient the police become, houses will carry on getting burgled, and innocents will carry on getting murdered.
 However draconian our prison system becomes, crimes will still carry on being committed.
However enlightened our social workers become, crimes will carry on being committed.
However strong our army becomes, and however clever our foreign policy becomes, there will still be tyrants and unjust regimes.
Sickness, death, robbery, murder, tyranicalism and injustice are not the aberrant results of the machinations of a small number of super-villains. They are just the way things are.
Anyone who tells you differently should be laughed at loudly, or tarred and feathered, according to taste.

This doesn't mean that we couldn't be doing a lot better than we are at the moment, of course.


When people use the term 'evil', I do not understand what they mean.
Is it being used in an analytic sense: 'Murderers are evil because 'evil' is the word we use to describe people who have committed murder'? But then 'He[1] is evil' means no more than 'He is a murderer.'
Is it being used as an explanatory sense? 'Why did he kill the child? Because he was evil.'? But this means no more than 'He killed the child because he was the sort of person who kills children.'
Is it being used to propose a solution? But if we don't already believe that evil people should be killed, then 'He should be killed because he is evil' says no more than 'He should be killed because he is a murderer.'
Is 'He is evil' a riposte to people who think that criminals can reform or be rehabilitated? But why say 'He is evil?' instead of 'He is incapable of reform.'?
Does 'evil' mean 'One who enjoys hurting others'? Then why not say 'sadist'?
Does 'evil' means 'One who acts without conscience or remorse'? Then why not just say 'psychopath'?
It might mean 'One who is pre-destined to go to Hell', I suppose, but the people who use the term are not Calvinists.
It might mean 'One who is possessed by Satan', I suppose, but the people who use the term are not pentecostalists.
It might mean 'he is genetically programmed to behave badly' or 'he is psychologically damaged and cannot chose but behave badly'; but the term is not widely used by geneticists or psychologists.

Tolkien said that the opposite of goodness would not be 'evil', but non-existence.
The Bible mainly uses the term descriptively, as 'He did evil in the eyes of the LORD' or 'Anyone who does evil deeds hates the pure light and will not come to the light'. It is more interested in 'sin', a technical term understood to mean 'a flaw in our nature caused by our separation from the Ground of Our Being, which inclines us to do bad things.' Sin, by definition, is not something which infects a few super villains, but something which we all suffer from.[2]

A man who invites two children into his house and kills them in the bathroom has done wrong.
A man who invites dozens of children into his mansion and touches them 'in ways which don't seem right or feel good' has done wrong.
A man who, under orders from a democratically appointed leader, drops a bomb which destroys a school, a village or an entire city, has done wrong.
A man who, because of his fanatical devotion to a cause, explodes a bomb which destroys a hotel, a plane or a shopping center, has done wrong.
A man who, as part of his business sells land-mines and torture implements which he knows will be used to kill civilians, including children, has done wrong.
There are different kinds and degrees of wrongdoing. The warrior has caused more grief than the murderer. The terrorist believes that he acts for a higher cause. The soldier is obeying orders. The murderer may be mentally ill, or not fully understand that what he is doing is wrong. The molester may not be able to help himself, or may sincerely believe that his victims enjoy what he is doing to them. The arms dealer acts in cold blood, with no higher cause apart from his shareholders wallets, and knows perfectly well what he is doing.
I wouldn't let any of them baby-sit my kids. Or feed my sea-monkeys, come to that.


If Harold Shipman had been executed by the state, this would have been a good thing since it would have provided closure for the families of his victims. But if he were to commit suicide while under a life sentence, this would be a bad thing because it robs the families of his victims of the chance of knowing how they died.
I trust this is clear.


Punishment is sexy. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be nightclubs called 'Spank' and the York Dungeon would go out of business.
There is nothing particularly wrong with this.
However, fetish clubs and Dirty Harry movies are not a particularly useful template for international diplomacy or social policy.

When a nasty crime happens, we feel outrage. Very often we express this outrage by imagining ourselves inflicting pain on the person who committed it.
There is nothing particularly wrong with this.
However, when we start to say that because we feel like hurting the murderer, we ought to be allowed to really hurt the murderer, we are making a category mistake. 'I feel like whipping that criminal' should not lead us to think 'Criminals should be whipped' any more than 'Windows 2000 is a bastard' should lead us to check its birth certificate.

We often link the degree of outrage which we feel to the amount of torture which we can imagine inflicting. We are inclined to express the badness of the crime in terms of the severity of the punishment. 'How bad is this crime? Oh, it's hanging, drawing and quartering bad.'
The more value we attach to a person, or the more love we feel for them, the more outraged we are inclined to feel when they are harmed. By a circumlocution, we express the value of the victim in terms of the amount of cruelty we can imagine inflicting on the person who harmed them. 'How valuable was that little girl?' 'She was burning at the stake valuable.'
There is nothing particularly wrong with any of this.
However, anyone who argues that if you don't think that murderers really should be tortured then you don't think that little girls are really valuable is making a logical error; at the same level as the priest who didn't like sex because he thought it might lead to dancing.

It is natural for superstitious peasants to punish the flower-pot which fell on the king's head; or for Basil Fawlty to want to thrash his car. But it isn't sensible to actually do it; or to create fantasy worlds in which actually doing it will make some kind of difference.


I can imagine what it would be like to be a super-villain, surrounded by powerful yes-men.
If I were in such a position, I can imagine that I might be tempted to do bad things. I might acquiesce in the assassination, first of political opponents, then of people who speak against me, finally of anyone I didn't like the look of.
(Please, Mr. Red Skull: Eric Spratling called your column 'stupid' and then changed it to 'foolish'. And he's a conservative, a class traitor. Would you like him to meet with an unfortunate deliberate? I could arrange it. Just say the word, boss. Just say the word.)
 I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a private citizen who gives his child a toy noose and takes him to stand outside a courthouse or a prison. Such people are alien beings who I happen to share a planet with. I can no more imagine their minds than I can imagine the mind of a bat or a spider or a one-year-old baby.
I find myself, therefore, more able to sympathize with the captive monster than with the crowds calling for his dismemberment. I found myself hoping that it would turn out that Huntley really was the victim of an horrific accident, not because I really thought he was, but because I wanted to deprive the multitude of its entertainment.


A theory:
What differentiates liberals from conservatives is the degree to which they believe that other human beings have minds which are the centers of their own universes; the degree to which they believe that other human beings have subjective experiences and an internal mental life.
The liberal believes that nearly everybody is a human being in their own right, and therefore, that almost nobody should be killed or tortured. The conservative believes that some people are not human beings and that it doesn't really matter what you do to them.

At the extreme end of the liberal spectrum are people who believes that everyone—yes, even people serving life sentences, yes, even people under sentence of death, yes, even war criminals, yes even her—have minds and personalities of their own. They believe that a comprehensible series of steps brought them to a place where they did terrible things, and that there is a possible route back for them.
At the extreme end of the conservative spectrum are people who believe that large numbers of human beings don't really have personalities or feelings. Death-penalty enthusiasts perceive condemned criminals as objects to which things can be done which benefit society. ('We have to have capital punishment. How else can we get rid of the trash?') Some white supremacists cite quasi-theological or quasi-Darwinian evidence that black men don't have souls or rational minds[3]. The climactic moment of the post-Soham sacrifice narrative was when Carr announced to the court that Huntley was not a person, but athing. (It is practically certain that Huntley told himself the same lie about the two little girls he killed.) It is not hard to end up writing off whole categories: foreign soldiers, communists, pedophiles, Jews, asylum seekers, ramblers, tenants.
It is possible to fall of the end of liberalism and start attributing human feelings to things which are not really human at all: animals and even plants. You start to imagine that the welfare of foxes is the great, burning issue of the day. You watch live sheep being loaded on lorries for slaughter and claim to feel as you would if you were watching Jews being taken to concentration camps.
It is equally possible to fall of the end of conservatism, and doubt the humanity of almost everybody. The perfect 'fascist' and the perfect 'fundamentalist' seeks to deny even his own humanity. I do not exist, only the party exists. Jesus wants me for a zombie. There is no love but the love of Big Tony.

It is impossible to call for the death or torture of another person if you can imagine what it is like to be that person. Most torturers have not themselves been tortured; hardly any executioners have themselves been executed.
Evil is a word which we use to stop ourselves from feeling empathy towards people we intend to kill.


Execution enthusiasts used to say: 'We have to hang murderers in order to deter crime. If we abolished hanging half the physicians in the country would be bumping off old ladies. '
When this turned out not to be true, they said 'Did I say deterrence? No, sorry, what I meant was, we have to kill murderers because they are psychologically damaged and can't possibly be reformed or cured. And even if they aren't, we need to do something drastic to express the idea that murder is a very bad idea. And even if we don't, it's cheaper to hang murderers than to keep them in gaol for life, which is the only alternative. And if it isn't, then watching someone being asphyxiated is a good form of therapy for the families of murder victims.' (Other bereaved persons, sadly, have to make do with a bunch of flowers and a plate of cucumber sandwiches.)
In the end they gave up, and said 'We don't support hanging because we think it will do some good. We support hanging because we think that it is a good thing in itself. Bad people have to be executed. They just do.'

Execution is a modern, secular form of human sacrifice.
Most people will not experience their own deaths. They will be senile, or sick, or snuffed out unexpectedly by a heart attack or a drunken driver. Therefore, we have a deep desire to witness the exact moment of someone else's death. It's a sort of rehearsal. (Hence, all those death-bed scenes in bad Victorian novels. Hence Greek tragedy. Hence Princess Diana. Hence the centrality of the Crucifixion in Western culture. Even secular western culture. Hi, Mel.)
A sacrificial victim knows precisely when and how he is going to be killed, and has weeks or months to prepare for it. With or without the help of drugs, he goes calmly, even willingly; saying goodbye to his friends and family, making peace with God or the gods.
Many people plan their own funeral: a sacrificial victim is the only person who actually gets to attend it. This is why we somewhat envy them. The deaths of Iphigenia or Socrates or Timothy McVeigh represent exactly the kind of deaths we would like to die—although we would much rather not die at all, so we'll let them do it for us, if you don't mind.

Conservatives want an all-powerful state to make them feel more secure. There is no more powerful thing which the state can do than decide the moment and manner of someone's death. So conservatives feel safer in a state which occasionally sacrifices its citizens. It’s the ultimate symbol that Nanny is in charge.
And of course human sacrifice is thrilling and dramatic, like a boxing match or horror movie, or that frisson of nervous laughter which went round Assembly when the headmaster said that someone other than you was going to get slapped.
If the execution lobby were completely honest, I think that it would say, 'We do not specifically desire the execution of murderers. We just want they're to be executions, and murderers provide a convenient candidate. Jews, blacks, witches, Christians and volunteer sacrificial victims would do the job just as well.'


It once seemed as if society was weaning itself off punishment. It seemed as we had given up on the idea that cold bloodedly killing and hurting people was part of the role of the state. It was a gradual process, of course. The last Frenchman to have his head chopped off could, in theory, have asked to see Star Wars as a last request.
(Last public execution, eighteen sixty something. Last execution, nineteen sixty something. Formal abolition of the death penalty, nineteen ninety something. Abolition of whipping of criminals, nineteen twenty something; abolition of whipping of juvenile delinquents on the mainland, nineteen fifty something, abolition of whipping of juveniles delinquents on the Isle of Mann, nineteen seventy something. )
We'd even stopped thinking of prisons as places where we gave bad people a bad time. They were more of a service that took care of people who the rest of society really couldn't cope with; or helped and re-trained people who were incredibly messed up. The rhetoric of Tory conference and the barbarian press was still 'let 'em rot' 'string 'em up' and 'bring back the birch'. but there was a consensus that we simply didn't do things like that any more.
That consensus is breaking down. We are a democracy; and the demos desires punishment and sacrifice and personal satisfaction, and politicians increasingly think that it should be give what it wants.
The press—even the supposedly leftist press—continue to promote the urban myth that even the worst murderers do not get sent to gaol. Speaking of a prominent war criminal, one contributor to the Daily Mirror's letter page explained "At least we can reassure ourselves that if his own people deal with him he will not be given a slap on the wrist and a community service order." In the next column, another letter-writer (or, dare we suppose, the same sub) repeated the same lie in the same words"Let's hope they can hold onto to him because in their country, the punishment reflects the crime. If he manages to escape to Britain, he will plead that he comes from a broken home and that he only killed all those people because he was seeking attention. I reckon he would get about 180 hours community service."
Blunkett shamelessly courts the popularity of these soft-spoken demagogues. He changed the laws on parole to give Maxine Carr another few weeks behind bars, not because she was exceptionally dangerous—she's been convicted of a relatively minor offence—but specifically because she was a 'high profile case'. The law allows criminals who are not dangerous to be released from prison early. The mob demands its pound of flesh, especially if the criminal is female, and scary-looking, and has had her picture in the paper. So change the law to satisfy the mob. He had previously fought the European Human Rights court specifically to keep Myra Hindley in prison, not because anyone supposed that she was a threat, but because the mob wanted it. He made this very explicit in trying to justify his farcical idea of mandatory sentence of life-without-parole for some murderers.[4] Apparently, hanging was abolished in 1965 only on condition that murderessees would serve actual life sentences. If we had known that some of them would be paroled, we would have carried on strangling them. We have to keep up this 'contract' with the British people in order that they retain confidence in the criminal justice system.[5]
We can't become more liberal than we were in the 1960s. The mob wouldn't like it.


We are excited by the capture of Saddam Hussein because we believe in the Marvel comics view of morality. Sock Saddam on the jaw, and the world will become a safer place.
We are excited by the capture of Saddam Hussein because we have bought into the theory that the wrongs of the world can be blamed on individual super-villains.
We are excited by the capture of Saddam Hussein because the political class have sold us a comic-strip narrative about 'evil' as a substitute for informed debate.
But above all, we are excited by the capture of Saddam Hussein because it provides us with a pretext to inflict the death penalty, and we love the idea of seeing someone being killed in cold blood.

'President' Bush will have no shame or embarrassment about welcoming and celebrating the forthcoming Iraqi human sacrifice. The British Press will do so as well. The Sun treated the death of Shipman as a joke, and dared Huntley to do the same; even providing a diagram to help him. (The 'Labour' home secretary said that his first impulse on hearing the news was to open a bottle of champagne. Truly, we are only ever one headline away from barbarism.)
Blair will not engage in this kind of bloodsucking morbidity—that's not his style—but he has already conceded that if the Iraqis decide to top him, he will go along with it. This places him on exactly the same moral level. Either you oppose all executions, or you support capital punishment. Either you plead for clemency, or you support the death penalty. You are either with us liberals, or on the side of the barbarians.
If you are not with us, you are against us. George Bush said that. Or was it Jesus? I lose track.

If New Labour fails to oppose an execution, even this one, then the liberal movement in the UK will be effectively dead. If we allow or support or refuse to oppose the ritual slaughter of one particularly heinous war criminal, then we have conceded the point that there are some circumstances—at least one—under which capital punishment is justified.
If we concede this point, the mob will not forget it. If you are prepared to make an exception for Saddam, Tony, they will say, why not Huntley? Why not all child killers? Why not all killers? Why not consider the possibility that it might be a very real and very practical deterrent to use against drugs pushers? They are already starting to say it. And the Tories already have in place a leader who, as home secretary, supported strangulation and popularized the ludicrous slogan that 'prison works'; and a shadow Home Secretary who is prepared to openly admit that he likes the idea of killing people, albeit 'humanely'. And while the mob starts to dance around Saddam's corpse, the best Tony can manage is 'We oppose the death penalty on principle, but we will abide by the decision of the Iraqi people.'
Kill the pig! Cut her throat! Spill her blood!
Society must not give into to the dark, atavistic impulse to ritually and ceremonially kill an already helpless prisoner. Not Shipman, not Huntley, not Saddam. Our hard won liberal society must not be sacrificed for the mob's pleasure.

'We have already established what sort of a woman you are. We are now simply haggling about the price'

[1] Or usually, she.
[2] To my slight surprise, Jesus occasionally uses 'evil' to mean 'ordinary human sinfulness'. "If you, who are evil, know how to give good things to your children…" is directed, not at serial killers, nor even Pharisees, but to the disciples.
[3] There exists a comic-book artist who sincerely believes that women do not have rational minds.
[4] Note for the benefit of Americans: the British system of justice has never had a concept of 'Second Degree Murder': all murderers are given an indeterminate 'life' sentence, and the amount of time actually served is determined on a case by case basis. (This is what lies behind the tabloid lie that life 'means' ten years: that's the average term served; some serve a lot less; some a great deal more.) The idea that the length of time actually served would be determined in advance, at the trial, and that it is based on the nature and seriousness of the crime - not, say, the degree to which the criminal responds to treatment or education over the next thirty years—is a complete novelty.
[5] For the avoidance of doubt: I think it most unlikely, that Harold Shipman, had he lived, would ever have been a safe prospect for parole; and even if he had been released, it would probably have been a bad idea to let him practice medicine again. I merely think that this decision should be made by a judge or a parole board: I do not think that a politician should be allowed to pre-empt a decision that will probably me made when he is long since retired, or even dead.