Peter Hitchens and the Death Penalty
…satisfy your blood lust, and tell yourself you were good to the victim because blood atonement remitted the sin. You gave the fellow a chance to get to the hereafter, after all. This business of living for eternity certainly contributed to capital punishment, brutality and war.
I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands in so much innocent blood and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.
Get the Gush Gone
A good title should have a sense of humour. I got into (yet another) discussion on the death penalty with a couple of persons on Peter Hitchens’s blogsite recently. It can be frustrating trying to have a discussion there. Mr Hitchens has said the arguments against the death penalty are an insult to the intelligence. I’m not sure if even he believes this, but who knows. I am opposed to the religious human sacrifice which some refer to as ‘the death penalty,’ though I think it is a fascinating topic to discuss, and significantly more complicated than many persons think it is.
One reason I’m so interested in the discussion is that the ‘death penalty’ is the first topic on which I wrote myself to a change of mind. I used to be all for it. I’m not a professional or trained writer, and had no idea that the process of writing – the actual physical process – could act like a sort of ‘hypnosis,’ and if done enough, a person might find his subconscious telling him things he didn’t know he knew and giving him thoughts he didn’t know were there. It’s a wonderful experience to be writing away, tapping the keys and transcribing the thoughts flowing up from below, and to realise that you are actually changing your own mind on something. (It’s odd to think of myself as a card-carrying member of the ‘hang ‘em high’ club, when all the time I actually thought the opposite to what I thought I thought.)
When such moments happen, a person has a choice: he can reject what his own psyche is telling him – perhaps because he ‘identifies’ with his position on whatever the topic is, or he can take a deep breath and keep going into unknown psychological territory. I say ‘take a deep breath’ because we do tend to like our beliefs and dislike it when somebody challenges them, so when it is us doing the challenging, it actually takes a small amount of bravery to continue tapping the keys.
Peter Hitchens supports this ‘penalty of death,’ and hardly is he on his own. The death penalty is something wanted by the public, and something which would be restored if put to the public in a vote. On the death penalty question I’d wager we have a situation where the State is refusing to give the public what it wants. (The relationship between public opinion and demand, and the State and what it does in response to that demand, is a fascinating question, yet could be reduced to a ‘who blinks first’ dynamic because the State is, at bottom, a collection of humans with their own interests, just like the public.) Why the State won’t allow religious human sacrifice, when such a move would (almost certainly)be a popular one, is another interesting question, especially considering the state likes power over the citizen.
I’m going to mention some arguments in favour of the death penalty used by Peter Hitchens, and why the practice, regardless of what those in favour say of it, is an obscenity. Peter Hitchens is a prominent journalist and has the ability to influence opinion, so he’s a fair target. Also he has put some interesting arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice. I doubt he is enthusiastic for the practice, though I accept he could be. He once stated ‘I would prefer not to have to defend the dark rituals of execution, especially since I have witnessed them at first hand. However, those who wish to say anything serious about government and law must be ready to argue for difficult things.’1
This is interesting in itself as arguing for the death penalty is absurdly easy. The topic is a demagogue’s dream, so simple is it to think up emotive examples of crimes (usually murders of children) to get the crowd or the reader quickly on your side. It’s the ease with which a person can support this practice that is an interesting thing to consider when thinking about Peter Hitchens’s arguments in favour of it. He is on the record as being suspicious of public opinion and conventional wisdom, yet seems not bothered by popularity of the thing he’s arguing for, here. I would expect him to be suspicious of something public opinion supported, and look harder for the argument against – and whoever reads his stuff can say he usually does this – so I wonder if Peter Hitchens agrees with the public sentiment on this, or thinks the public are right by accident, so supports this practice for reasons which are different to those reasons the public animal wants Capital Punishment returned?
I suspect Peter Hitchens’s support for Capital Punishment rests on his religion, and the public’s desire for it rests on their blood-thirsty, emotion-riddled knee-jerkism. If this is true, it’s perhaps understandable why Peter Hitchens finds the death penalty difficult to argue for, or a difficult thing to argue for, and the public finds it easy to support. Peter Hitchens is no demagogue, and public opinion is of no worth whatsoever.
I know I’m talking as if it’s a given that the public would restore capital punishment overnight, and I think it’s a safe position to take given the polls which have been taken. In 2015, a Gallup poll showed that 61% of the public were in favour of the death penalty for murder,2 so that’s a clear, unambiguous majority, and that Peter Hitchens finds himself in the majority is unusual in itself.
One point to note is this: never trust anyone who says killing people saves lives. Killing people costs lives – the lives of those killed. We’ve all heard this curious form of words used before. The argument that killing saves lives, the ‘argument’ used to justify the atomic bombs dropped by the US over Japan, which is similar to the argument which says ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,’ is an ‘argument’ which is loved by the hand-waiver who states: ‘It’s as simple as that.’ In other words, it’s a line taken by a mind which has a poor conscience, hasn’t thought about it, or has thought about it, but doesn’t care about it. Whichever it is, the person delivering this sort of ‘black is white’ or ‘war is peace’ line should be questioned further. Never accept this sort of thing without investigation.
I haven’t chosen Peter Hitchens’s position or arguments on the death penalty because I have some sort of ‘problem’ with him. I’m not one of those who attack him on Twitter, or post comments to his newspaper blogsite using fake names and with unbalanced criticisms – or attack him anywhere else. I happen to have admiration for Peter Hitchens and wish there were more journalists like him. I could make the case, quite easily, that even his enemies owe him a certain debt of gratitude. Anybody who can’t see, straight away, that writers like Peter Hitchens keep the rest of us a little bit safer will probably never be able to see it.
I ask you this: in a world of politically correct witch-hunts, where man denounces man for imagined ‘heresies’ against the orthodoxy – and does so for no other reason than to claim his own purity and ensure the witch-hunters move to the next cottage – what value shall we put on a fellow who can make politicians nervous?
Quite a high value, I’d say.
A Sword in the Hand
That’s the gush out the way. It is easy to make arguments from emotion, that should be remembered; but to begin, a person should decide which side they are on, and this is the question they should answer to decide their side. Do you think it is better to have societal norms, rules and laws based on reason, logic and utility, with all three anchored to the assumption that excessive power over the citizen by the state is axiomatically bad, or do you think what a just society needs to function, and function at its best, are laws and practices which are based on the human animal’s base nature, and which in turn, therefore, allow the state to have the ultimate power over the citizen?
Or, to put the same point another way: do you prefer liberty or security?
To condense the two positions on capital punishment down to a choice between two words is not to attempt a simplification of the topic; it’s just to state that such a reduction can be done. When an argument is followed right to its bedrock, there’s usually not much more than a word or short phrase at the bottom. The entire Christian position can be reduced to Idealist, for instance, and that is what is waiting for the supporter of Capital Punishment; or, to describe it correctly: religious human sacrifice.
Liberty and Security are like the two ends of the playground see-saw, when one is up, the other is always down. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. To say your preference is for equal weights of both is to reveal you don’t care much, or know much, about human nature – or the nature of the human.
There are examples from history and literature which suggest that humans, when in possession of power, position and authority over other humans, sometimes use it in a way which doesn’t always benefit the majority. There are many examples from history and literature of the State making and passing laws which benefit and protect it, not the citizen. (That the State is made up of humans makes this a fascinating thing to consider. Why would a single person, or a small group of persons, make decisions which benefit the whole state, even while they know that under certain circumstances, they could suffer under the very rules or legislation they are proposing? Perhaps these drops of lubricant in the machine are truly selfless, or perhaps bureaucracy has a way of bringing out the inner sadist from a person?)
So my first contention is this:
The supporter of capital punishment is the enemy of liberty.
Peter Hitchens claims to be a lover of liberty, but is he really a lover of liberty? There is a preening, chin-stroking attitude which many people who support the death penalty have. Many have convinced themselves their position is a refined position because they support the practice for murder only. Consider this for a moment. Such a position presupposes they’ve ruled out other crimes and therefore have ‘thought deeply’ about their view. This might not be the case. It is possible such a person has camouflaged their desire for religious revenge under an intellectual veneer. Indeed, some supporters of the death penalty have their opinions so deeply ‘dug-in’ that they manage to support the practice while carrying the politician’s ‘heavy-heart’. To support a practice, but ‘with regret’, is a smart move: it presupposes not only how deeply the question has been thought about, but also that the supporter has taken a selfless, sacrificial position, in that they are prepared to suffer for their belief because what they believe is ultimately good for society. It’s a curious type of ego-mania and understated narcissism. Can a supporter of capital punishment ever be a lover of liberty?
Peter Hitchens knows as well as anyone what the State can do to a person. The State is the enemy of the individual, and the enemy of the family unit, and very well Peter Hitchens knows it. He wrote in The Abolition of Britain that the State dislikes the family because it fashions bonds which are stronger than patriotism. The State can lock you up, take your children, take your house from you via compulsory purchase – it can impose many things upon the individual. How can a person be a lover of liberty if they want the State to have the power to do what it can already do, yet also the power to reach into a citizen’s body and stop their heart from beating? To support the death penalty, even if you support it for murder only, is to want the State to have absolute power
This is liberty with qualifications, which means it’s not liberty.
For instance he supports ‘freedom of speech’ so long as something called ‘incitement to violence’ is not part of it. (He’s not the only person who postures in this way.) This is the ‘yes but no’ attitude which happens when somebody wants to claim to be a certain type of person, but doesn’t genuinely want the thing they claim to want that would make them that type of person. Most of us will have had the following experience. We did something naughty when we were small and were caught, perhaps by a teacher. The teacher demanded to know why we did such and such, and we say – because we were little and didn’t ‘get it’ at such a young age – that so and so ‘told me to do it.’ The teacher will then have then offered us a particular ‘look’ and said something like ‘Well, if so and so told you to jump of a bridge would you do it?’ We know we wouldn’t have done that, so we then realise we are to blame for what we actually do, and can’t blame others for ‘making’ us do it. The illogical nonsense about ‘incitement’ is the teacher saying ‘Right! Let’s go and round-up so and so, too! And we’ll see who gave him the idea, and then we’ll get them in room 101 as well!’ Before you could say ‘witch-hunt’ you’d have all the toddlers in the playschool on trial ‘by-teacher’ for their part in a non-existent conspiracy of influence. A Stalinist madness.
The position Peter Hitchens takes on ‘freedom of speech’ is contradictory because he doesn’t want speech to be ‘free’ in any way at all, he wants it to be limited. When you advertise your ‘free beer’ but actually charge 1p for it, it isn’t free. One you’ve added your qualification, you have dissolved your principle.
This qualification serves the same purpose as the ‘for murder only’ qualification serves: it presupposes deep thought and implies the person is a ‘serious’ person who is exquisitely discriminatory. But how can a person be serious when they argue for ‘free speech’ in this way? I think it’s unlikely that Peter Hitchens cannot see the ‘freedom of speech’ contradiction, because he’s obviously an intelligent person, and words are his business. This leaves me thinking that he can see it, and is happy with it, because it accurately expresses the truth of the matter, and is happy for others not to notice. What other option is there?
There’s a scene I want you to create in your mind and it will be mentioned later. I want you to imagine you are walking back to your car, and you take a shortcut through an alley. In that alley you find the body of a child. The child has met a violent end: the head is bashed and smashed; there are bits of blood, skull and brain splattered on the walls. Lying next to the body is a hammer with bloody fingerprints on the handle, and you see bloody footprints leading away from the scene.
Let’s say the child is a ten year old girl.
Do you think any wrong has been done to the little girl? You think yes? I’d guess most people would. Now here’s the thing: anyone who thinks that the little girl has had wrong done to her should not support capital punishment.
Now I know that might sound odd. It seems obvious that the person who bashed her head in deserves to swing, but I’m afraid things are not as simple as they seem, and the arguments for and against capital punishment are not as simple as the simple feel they are.
Leave that scenario in the back of your mind while we flash-forward in hypothetical time and create another scenario.
You’re watching the evening news and the story comes on about the person convicted of killing the child from the alley. The cameras have captured the following: the convicted is making his way to court for sentencing, and a crowd has gathered, waiting just for this moment. They cannot put hands the guilty, and lucky for him, because he is locked safely in the armoured police-van which drives slowly through that crowd. The persons gathered shout and scream at the van, some throw things, some spit at it and some rock it sideways in an attempt to tip it over, before the officers pull the mob from the vehicle and it drives through.
Then we cut to a shot from on high, where the handcuffed child-killer is lead from the rear of the van into the building. Next we’ll be shown an artist’s colour-pencil sketch of the beast in the dock, and we’ll be told he spoke only to confirm his name, and some other details, and we’ll be told what the judge had to say as he passed sentence. Usually at this point we cut to the reporter whose voice has been heard over the pictures: she will be standing outside the court, microphone in hand, having a chat with the news presenter in the studio.
Whatever is said the by reporter or the presenter, the behaviour of the crowd won’t be condemned. If it’s mentioned at all it will be to offer the banal observation that feelings were ‘running high.’ I wonder what number of us, watching such a thing in our homes, secretly wishes the mob could gain access to the vehicle, and get at the killer? And I wonder what might happen if such a thing occurred?
Perhaps one of the mob would drive the vehicle to waste ground, where the guilty could be taken to task, and some collective need in the mob could be satisfied while helicopter cameras captured the celebration in high definition?
What is that need or urge which drives the mob to picket the court, waiting for the guilty? What motivates the van rocking mob? What do they want?
Their behaviour could be described as odd, possibly stupid, because they know their missiles – their eggs, rocks and coke-cans – won’t penetrate the armoured vehicle, they will never get at the man inside. One can’t help but wonder why they bother.
The explanation needs to be that the spitting and throwing things, and trying to tip the van over, are not considered actions but a spontaneous expression of rage. That would make some sense. But consider the behaviour of the crowd before the police van shows up. The crowd is still a crowd at this point, not yet a mob, and can we believe they turned feral at the site of a vehicle they could never gain access to? What next, try to tip the building over because the guilty is in there?
No, the mob’s behaviour upon the arrival of the police van is a considered action, certainly not ‘spontaneous’ and the reporter is right in a sense, feelings are running high. Years ago, there might be some point in forming a mob and going after a suspect, flaming torches in one hand, bible in the other, while others in the mob ran with dogs straining at the lead. That made some sense because there was a chance they could catch the suspect and lynch him. The mob around the police van can’t do that – they know they can’t, therefore their behaviour is posturing and an expression of vanity.
The mob believe that they are safe to show this side of human nature, not only to each other but to the cameras, because the crime, the murder of the child, is vile enough that the normal standards of conduct don’t apply, and they have numbers on their side if you disagree. The options with such a running mob are to join in or step aside; trying to reason with them is a waste of time, trying to stop them is dangerous.
That humans can be violent when emotional is not interesting, but it is interesting to consider the lynch-mob mentality, and to conclude that it takes not so much to bring that part of the character of the human animal to the surface.
The argument about Capital Punishment usually begins with the supporter arguing for deterrence and the opposer claiming execution of the innocent is the unanswerable position. Both are (very often) the first arguments either side deploys. When my side of the house – the side which believes in liberty over security – mentions the innocent it’s common for the supporter to play the ‘accident’ card.
‘Yes,’ they say, ‘an innocent person executed is a terrible thing, but terrible things happen all the time, should we reject or abolish everything which causes accidental deaths? We’d have to abolish cars and planes and all sorts of things.’
But of course such a person is being slippery. They are suggesting an accidental death is equivalent to a deliberate death, which it isn’t and they’re missing the point into the bargain.
No person sacrificed by the State via the death penalty is killed by accident. No prisoner ever walked along their landing, tripped, fell into a noose and got hanged.
Every execution is a deliberate act, so the ‘accident’ card relies on a false parallel. Not a good start for the supporter of human sacrifice.
The argument about an innocent person executed is airtight; it cannot be met by anything from the other side. In addition there is no answer to the charge that, by executing the innocent, you have by default freed the guilty – so it’s a double outrage.
But arguments from ‘body-count’ miss the point, too. The enlightened side of the house reject the idea of capital punishment; reject the idea that the state can have this power over the citizen; and contend that, when the death penalty option is retained, the state has too much power over the citizen by definition, and the relationship between the two is ultimately totalitarian in practice and religious in theory (which just means totalitarian in theory, too.)
A word on ‘deterrence’.
Often the supporter will cling to the idea of deterrence and not be swayed by logic. In a debate, formal discussion or even just a conversation, there are some things a person should not do. They should not claim something is true when they don’t know it is, and they should not claim something is true if they can’t know. Consider the words of the author and scientist, Sam Harris:
Exactly how many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth at this instant? What is their combined weight in grams? We cannot possibly answer such questions, but they have simple, numerical answers. Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? For instance, how seriously should we take the claim that there are exactly 23,000 birds in flight at this moment, and, as they are all hummingbirds weighing exactly 2 grams, their total weight is 46,000 grams? It should be obvious that this is a ridiculous assertion. We can, therefore, decisively reject answers to questions that we cannot possibly answer in practice. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do.3
This is a problem with the ‘deterrence’ argument. The only thing which can be known is that capital punishment is not 100% effective as a deterrent. There’s no way to calculate what number of persons have been deterred from doing something. You can’t count-up acts which haven’t happened. It is not known if capital punishment is a deterrent: its supporters just claim it is because they think it’s a safe claim. But how can a claim for something be safe when those supporters can’t know if it’s true? It’s impossible to know if the death penalty is a deterrent, and I think arguments from deterrence should be disqualified immediately.
Even the academic ‘studies’ can’t answer it, and the impossibility of ever getting an answer leads to some hilarious examples of chin-stroking ‘seriousness’.
Read these and try not to laugh:
The view that the death penalty deters is still the product of belief, not evidence. The reason for this is simple: over the past half century the U.S. has not experimented enough with capital punishment policy to permit strong conclusions. Even complex econometrics cannot sidestep this basic fact. The data are simply too noisy, and the conclusions from any study are too fragile. On balance, the evidence suggests that the death penalty may increase the murder rate although it remains possible that the death penalty may decrease it.4
On balance, that final sentence cracks me up every time I read it. And that’s from John J. Donohue, a professor at Yale Law School and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and Justin Wolfers, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and a Research Affiliate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Or consider this from the brief of yet another report into ‘deterrence’:
The studies use incomplete or implausible models of potential murderers’ perceptions of and response to the use of capital punishment. Much of the research assumes that potential murderers respond to the objective risk of execution.
It’s actually shocking. This is a confession, made so straight-faced you’re not meant to notice. Read it again, slowly; then contrast with this:
..there is good reason to believe that potential murderers’ perceived risk deviates from the objective risk.5
And that means there’s good reason to believe that murderers think they won’t get caught. It says the opposite to the first example, and both quotes are from the same brief. Where would we be without this sort of clarity of thinking making everything simpler? Why don’t these ‘academics’ just say ‘we don’t know because we can’t count-up acts which haven’t happened’?
There are other example of academics making strange statements . Consider this from Peter Hitchens:
The Home Office pathologist Professor Bernard Knight said recently that the British homicide rate was artificially low. Advances in medical treatment, he explained, now save hundreds of people who would have died from their wounds 40 years ago. The actual amount of lethal violence has risen to heights our fathers would have thought impossible.6
How can the homicide rate be artificially low? This point is meretricious. The homicide rate is whatever it happens to be. Just count the bodies. Are we to believe the death-in-childbirth-rate is artificially low thanks to medical advances? I don’t think so. The point is claiming an increase in violence, and Hitchens’s position is that lethal violence has increased since there’s been no death penalty. Is that actually true? Consider the words of Leon Britain from July 1983:
Those who argue for restoring the death penalty rightly point to the sharp rise in homicides since 1960. Between the end of the war and 1960 the number of homicides had shown a generally downward trend. In 1960, the offences initially recorded as homicide in England and Wales totalled 282. In 1965, the year capital punishment was abolished, the total was 325, in 1970 it was 396, in 1980 it was 621, and in 1982 it was 619. There are those who argue that the upward trend starting in 1960 is of no significance as that trend started before abolition. Against that, it can be said that the number of executions actually carried out in the last few years of capital punishment was very small and the deterrent effect might, therefore, if it existed, have been somewhat reduced.7
Note the rise in violence beginning before the abolition, and the important acknowledgement the deterrent effect might not exist to begin with. And it’s on his final point that Leon Britain touches on an important question about public executions.
Albert Camus, in his essay ‘Reflections on the Guillotine,’ makes the strong case that if the death penalty does have any deterrent effect, keeping the executions private, behind the prison walls, won’t allow the practice to work its dark magic on the minds of the peasantry:
We must either kill publicly, or admit we do not feel authorized to kill. If society justifies the death penalty as a necessary example, then it must justify itself by providing the publicity necessary to make an example. Society must display the executioner’s hands on each occasion, and require the most squeamish citizens to look at them, as well as those who, directly or remotely, have supported the work of those hands from the first.8
It’s a pretty strong point. Why bother with an example which nobody gets to see? And that’s assuming – and assuming against the logic – that there’s a deterrent effect to begin with.
If capital punishment was a genuine deterrent there wouldn’t be murders within jurisdictions which had human sacrifice as the punishment for a qualifying crime. But there are plenty of murders within jurisdictions such as these and always have been. This suggests human sacrifice is not a deterrent, and it’s probably not because most murders are not done by ice-man assassins. The majority of murders are emotional acts driven by money and sex and jealousy and other base drivers.
A word on the other ‘arguments’ and an argument against.
There are many positions taken by those who support religious human sacrifice. They talk about justice for the victim without considering that the victim can’t receive justice because the victim is dead and can’t receive anything. They then change their minds and claim and they want justice for the family of the victim. Bereavement requires justice, but not when the killer’s family are bereaved. For some reason they don’t count.
They argue that the cost of keeping murderers locked up is too high and executing them saves the tax-payer money. This argument is one of my favourites. It is simultaneously the stupidest and most dishonest argument: imagine two cells next to each other. In one is a murderer, serving twenty years, in the other is a non-murderer serving twenty years. Now consider the argument is supposed to be about the saving the tax payer money. Do I need to explain further?
Another silly argument is the argument from mercy. Peter Hitchens says:
The death penalty is far more humane than a long prison sentence. That is one of the best reasons for bringing it back. I’m sorry to say that the Court of Human Rights is correct in condemning our policy of locking up heinous murderers without hope of release and for so long they forget what they have done. It’s incredibly cruel.9
This argument claims that because decades in prison are a cruel, sadistic and barbaric punishment, the death penalty is justified because it is kinder to the murderer. This is an absurd argument just on the surface of it. It leaves the supporter of human sacrifice arguing for both punishment and mercy at the same time. But things get worse. There is a way to check if the person who makes this ‘argument’ actually means it. They should be asked if they would extend this ‘mercy’ to the terminally ill. Many Christians and Conservatives reject the idea of ‘mercy killing.’
Death is either a mercy or a punishment to be inflicted: if the former, then why don’t the terminally ill qualify? If the latter, then how can it be merciful to begin with? If the supporter claims that, yes, the terminally ill do qualify, are they not punishing the terminally ill if death is a punishment?
This nonsense argument is taken by supporters of human sacrifice because they are attempting to hide their real views under the veneer of intellectual compassion. They make themselves look extraordinarily stupid when they do this. This is what happens when paw-licking vanity and self-denial is valued more than intellectual honesty.
For most, the real motivation for their support of human sacrifice is no more than an emotional jerk of the knee. They imagine how they would feel if a person killed a member of their family. Then, feeling these unpleasant feelings, argue that human sacrifice is acceptable.
There are some, however, who support religious human sacrifice and who actually understand what they are talking about. I’ll mention these persons later.
For the moment I’ll just put my basic argument against the death penalty which seems to me to be quite hard to refute. (If this argument turns out to be rubbish, then the fault is mine.)
The argument goes like this:
Capital punishment is always wrong because we can never know if the victim lost anything of sufficient value to justify executing the killer.
It cannot be denied that value judgements underpin the crime / punishment question. If a person is convicted of stealing a packet of biscuits from a shop they would not be given the death penalty for this. That punishment wouldn’t ‘fit’ the crime. The value judgements we make about fitting punishments are mysterious in their origin, but we certainly make them. We tend only to hear arguments for religious human sacrifice for the crime of murder. I’ve never heard even the most reactionary, the most crusty and dusty conservative, argue for religious human sacrifice for anything other than murder. And, curiously, that creates a problem for their argument. When a person argues the death penalty should be imposed only for the crime of murder, they instantly grant that human life has a unique value or worth. Human life, on their account, has a special status and the only way justice ‘can be done’ is to take from the killer what they took from their victim. (The meme ‘a life for a life’ is popular, but the memes, ‘a rape for a rape,’ and ‘a punch in the face for a punch in the face’ haven’t caught on quite as well.)
Smarter supporters of human sacrifice will try to claim that value judgements have nothing to do with the calibration between crime and punishment or how we decide that x deserves y or doesn’t. I understand why the smarter supporters will try to avoid the concession that value judgements are what we use, because immediately they know that value judgements are subjective: there’s no over-arching objective standard we can all agree on. And it’s that fact which underpins my argument: how do we know the victim lost anything of sufficient worth to justify executing their killer?
This is where the dead girl in the alley comes in.
If you think value judgements have nothing to do with deciding what punishment fits what crime, you are left with the conclusion that nothing ‘wrong’ has been done to the little girl in the alley. Until a trial has happened and evidence has been heard; until a jury has reached a verdict and ‘justice has been done,’ the girl in the alley, to you, is no more than rearranged organic material.
So value judgments can’t be denied (or avoided) and it’s that underpinning subjectivity which makes human sacrifice wrong because – and allow me to repeat it – who says the killer lost anything of sufficient worth to justify executing their killer? Who says?
There’s more to the opposition to religious human sacrifice than the inescapable impossibility of justifying it. Which supporter of human sacrifice doesn’t want to punish murderers? Those who argue in favour of capital punishment want murderers to be punished (except the ‘mercy merchants,’ that is.) It is odd, then, that they argue for the thing which makes punishment impossible: death.
A dead person cannot receive punishment for the same reason a dead person cannot receive justice. They are dead. They cannot receive anything.
The supporter is arguing for the incarcerated murderer’s punishment to come to an end. Why they do this I don’t know.
There is no escape for the supporter of human sacrifice by saying that, they know the dead person can’t receive punishment, that’s not the point, (and who ever said it was?) they want the murderer to feel the fear and stress as their execution date approaches, and then the fear and stress on the day itself and so on.
This makes some sense – but not much. If that’s the case then the murderer need only be subjected to mock-execution, but would the supporter of capital punishment want that?
I think not.
Once this point has been made then the supporter should see what they really are arguing for is a form of torture where the victim suffers not the ‘death penalty’ but the ‘punishment penalty’ and is punished to death.
You can make a person dead by punishing them, but you cannot punish them after making them dead.
As I said, there are persons who understand what they are arguing for: they understand that the arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice require a belief in the afterlife to make even the slightest sense – and they really require a belief in God. As someone once said, this business of living for eternity contributes to capital punishment. What’s odd is that, on atheism, a belief in God is required for the arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice to make sense, but that means, to make sense to an atheist.
Assuming a Christian worldview for the sake of argument: what happens to the soul of the murder victim? Where does it go?
Let’s say the victim is the little girl in the alley.
The little ten year old girl, on the Christian worldview, is going to spend eternity with God in heaven. Let’s put it another way: on that Christian worldview, by murdering her, the killer has delivered his victim to the greatest possible bliss imaginable.
And for this he should be punished?
There’s a dizzying, circular paradox at the heart of the human sacrifice question.
It’s too easy to support the death penalty. When something is so easy to support a person should become immediately suspicious and begin questioning their motives, and asking questions about the motivations of others. It’s only when we begin to question our beliefs, and the motivations we have for them, does the conversation become interesting.
Capital Punishment: an actual obscenity.
In his book, ‘The Abolition of Britain,’ Peter Hitchens begins chapter five with this simple claim.
Hell was abolished around the same time that abortion was legalized and the death penalty was done away with.10
It’s interesting to look at the idea of religious human sacrifice and the attitudes to it from the supporters of today as compared to the actual practice from history. Consider these words from Lord Gardiner, spoken in the House of Lords in December 1969:
In 1908 there was a big advance: we abolished capital punishment for children under 16. When my grandfather was 21 a boy of nine who had set fire to a house was hanged at Chelmsford. In a previous year a little way back, a boy of 7 and his sister of 11 were hanged at Lyme. In 1922 we abolished capital punishment for infanticide. In 1929 a Resolution in the House of Commons calling for the abolition of capital punishment resulted in the appointment of a Select Committee. In 1930 the Select Committee reported. In their Report they said: Our prolonged examination of the situation in foreign countries has increasingly confirmed us in the assurance that capital punishment may now be abolished in this country without endangering life or property, or impairing the security of society. And they recommended its abolition for five years. In 1931 capital punishment was abolished for expectant mothers. In 1932 the Children Act abolished capital punishment for those under 18.11
I like the one where we abolished the death penalty for expectant mothers. Since these internal abolitions have happened, have those freed from the prospect of being hanged become troublesome? Are children under sixteen, boys of nine and seven, girls of eleven and women with-child now an out-of-control menace to society? This sort of incremental abolition smacks of a State which wants to retain the practice, and isn’t willing to let go completely. Remember the State is simply a collection of humans with interests which conflict with those of the majority. Please think about this specific question: what sort of State would want to hang small children or women with-child?
It’s remarks like those from Lord Gardiner which put the death penalty into its correct context and allow it to be seen for what it is: one way in which the State could tyrannise the ordinary people. Contrast the ‘arguments’ from somebody who wants human sacrifice for murder only, against this brief summary from the National Archive:
In the years after 1660 the number of offences carrying the death penalty increased enormously, from about 50, to 160 by 1750 and to 288 by 1815. You could be hanged for stealing goods worth 5 shillings (25p), stealing from a shipwreck, pilfering from a Naval Dockyard, damaging Westminster Bridge, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner or cutting down a young tree. This series of laws was called (later) “The Bloody Code.” Why was the Bloody Code passed? After the turmoil of the 17th century, the landowning class emerged as supreme rulers of Britain. They based their power on property-ownership, and saw the law’s main purpose as protecting property. They were ruling a country of 6.5 million, most of whom had no political rights whatsoever. The crime rate was not high, actually, but they feared that it was, as towns grew in size and the old village community crumbled. There was also no police force. The Bloody Code was therefore a threat: severe retribution would happen to those thinking of breaking the law by infringing property rights.12
When we think of capital punishment do we forget (did we even know?) that the State used to be able to kill us for minor offences such as cutting down a young tree? Perhaps not knowing the list of things we could be killed for by the State prevents us from seeing what the death penalty actually is: the missing list is the giver of context. Put it another way: imagine a person who opposed the enslavement of blacks, but also argued that blacks should be whipped for one particular crime only, and you might begin to see those who support the totalitarian, absolutist practice of human sacrifice for the Darth Vader Darksiders they are.
10. Hitchens, Peter (1999) The Abolition of Britain, Quartet, London, p107.