Hitchens on the death penalty

In the nightmarish world of Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, Britain is doomed. The onslaught of violent crime refuses to be quelled by the feeble resistance of the government. Precious values melt like wax before the eyes of the innocent and the liberals (Hitchens considers the Conservative Party a left-wing group) gnaw at what little respectability we have left. The only solution to this Tartarean perversion of democracy is the reinstatement of the death penalty.

Hitchens will say so at the Oxford Union debate in 6th week. It’s likely to be a torrid affair, with bleeding-heart liberals pitted against pantomime villains from the right wing. One side will try to make you weep for the plight of mass murderers, while the other will terrify you into the idea that snuffing out lives is the only way to stop an imaginary wave of violent crime. Then, at some point during the entire ghastly debacle, heads will truly roll when the Presidential candidates begin tearing chunks out of each other in preparation for the next election.

But amongst all the prejudice and the knee-jerk emotional reactions, Hitchens will no doubt make a compelling argument for the reinstatement of this ultimate form of justice. His ideas are often shocking and always frustrating, but they are sometimes lucid.

In reality, he won’t actually be bumping off criminals for the state any time soon. But if he could, this is how he would do it: “I think that hanging would be the only way to carry out capital punishment humanely – if properly conducted,” he tells me. “The straightforward breaking of the neck is a quick, relatively painless way to go about it. In the old days, for example, a hangman could dispatch a criminal within literally seconds of them walking into the room. It was extremely efficient – the door opened, the criminal was sent in, the noose fastened, there was a drop, and then all of a sudden it was over. The victim – I mean, not the victim, the criminal, rather, is dead right away. So it’s much preferable to other methods one might implement.”

Hitchens is deeply cynical about the United States’ other ways of killing, particularly the lethal injection, which he considers a “medicalized” procedure:

“I can’t stand the idea of the lethal injection; it’s nothing more than a kind of pseudo-medical thing. To me, that’s dubious for lots of reasons, least of all because it looks a bit like euthanasia. When someone’s being executed like that, it looks similar to someone being operated on in a theatre. Also, the lethal injection lacks any kind of retribution or moral force – you’re basically saying that this kind of person is no longer an acceptable member of society, so you’re going to put them down. That’s practically the opposite of saying something like “this person has done something so villainous that we’re going to kill him” – and that is at the heart of execution, the fact that it contains a very, very strong deterrent and an element of fear.”

The alternative of long term imprisonment is highly problematic for him; unlike many other right wing columnists, Hitchens really does think that British prisons are a hellish environment:

“I do emphatically think that a long period of imprisonment is worse than execution. Anyone who has actually been inside a prison realizes this very quickly; they are horrible places, some of the worst places in the world. I don’t particularly want to destroy people’s souls by doing that to them. Who would? Justice should be humane.

“Now, if you do come to the conclusion that person X has been so bad that he should forfeit his life, you shouldn’t torture him, abuse him, and put him at the mercy of the other lawless prisoners. You shouldn’t leave him rotting, and let the other inmates put razor blades in his food. No. I’m against that. So, in the case where someone has done something truly heinous, execution should definitely be an option available to the courts.”

At this point, you might be tempted to brand Hitchens as a mere polemicist, spewing out these ideas from the safety of the news desk to garner attention. That would not be completely fair. He has been witness to two executions in his life time, one of them in the electric chair.

“The first execution I witnessed was Nicholas Ingram. Do you know what he did?” He asks me.

I knew what the prosecution claimed he did.

“Why anyone would waste a second’s breath on trying to save that man, I have no idea,” Hitchens sighs. “In 1983, Ingram went into the home of an elderly couple, robbed them, dragged them out to the woods, tied them to a tree, tortured them – while remarking also that he enjoyed torturing people – and then shot the husband in the head, and did the same to the wife. They were tied to the same tree, but the wife survived the wound and testified against him. There was no question of his guilt, and no question that he should have been executed.”

As Hitchens saw Nick die, he noted, however, that “he wasn’t a coward. He was extremely brave. I saw him spit at the executioner before they killed them. But he was totally unrepentant…and had no regard for his immortal soul.”

At this point in our discussion, religion suddenly rears its unsightly head:

“Of course this does show that my argument for capital punishment is completely closed to those who don’t believe in god. If you are concerned with someone’s immortal soul – which I think you should be – then your criminal is far more likely to reach a state of repentance over a murder. When faced with the prospect of being hanged, rather than going to prison for a bit and joining a gang, they will repent.”

Unfortunately for Hitchens, God is just as dead as a bank robber whose feet sway in the breeze beneath the gallows. Although faith aside, there are facets of the death penalty which genuinely trouble him. In fact, he says, he may well “become an opponent of capital punishment, should the government ever use it non-humanely, without a free trial and a free press.”

His entire vision of capital punishment is a mixture of hypothetical ideas and nostalgia for the “good old days.” He fears the rise of a totalitarian government in the UK, which might reintroduce hanging without public approval. Hitchens’s views are no doubt compelling in this sense, a lonely trumpet call over a lost battlefield perhaps. But if so, they encourage a new music, a steady drumbeat, a fixed order, maintained by fear, and a command to the British people to remix and repent.