Little to say for myself

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Well That's a Relief

With a certain curiosity I just read an opinion piece in the Telegraph, by Simon Heffer, called The Case for Capital Punishment. I clicked on the link purely out of curiosity as to what it might be about. I assumed that it couldn't be what it literally purported to be - as there is no longer a credible case for killing imprisoned criminals beyond a medieval lust for retribution - so it must be a clever play on words about something else.

But I was forgetting that this is the Daily Telegraph - whose job it is to replay arguments lost decades ago to feed the nostalgia of its readership.

What struck me most, given Mr. Heffer's supposed status (his paid job) as one of our foremost articulators of reasoned argument, was how dim and toothless it all was.

How's this for openers? He describes a conference he attended, about 15 years ago, that was concerned with law and order:

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.

I'd assert that the silence was embarrassed for him. The assembly of crime-prevention professionals - senior police officers, probation officers and criminologists - would be suffciently versed in statistical analysis to know that there's a gulf between the statement of facts and the validity of any causal inference from those facts. It would have been just as accurate (and just as meaningless) to say that the murder rate had multiplied enormously since the Queen's coronation. Has Elizabeth's reign engendered so much more of a murderous rage in us than that of her father?

There have been many studies since that conference, of the deterrent effect of Capital Punishment, which have shown it to be insignificant - but Simon doesn't let that get in the way of a good rant.

(He even pulls off the coup, much later in the piece, of implicating the European Union in the recent murder of a WPC, saying:

Those who mourn WPc Beshenivsky can add to the list of her murderers the high contracting powers of the EU...

Nice one. That's what we're paying you for - now if you could only squeeze immigration and same-sex marriage in there somewhere, we'll be in Pulitzer Prize territory).

So his argument gets off to a pretty weak start. However he soon transforms that when, a few paragraphs later, it completely nose-dives:

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.

So, he's admitting that he can see no difference between the handling of a convicted criminal who is already safely under lock and key, and therefore of no immediate threat to the public, and that of someone who is a suspected suicide bomber who may be about to press a button and murder dozens of innocent commuters.

So what's the logical conclusion of this line of argument? It's obvious:

The return of Capital Punishment would deter suicide bombers.

Of course! Hooray! Problem solved!

posted by Plig | 10:25 |

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