It’s 55 years since the last execution in Great Britain. When asked, we consistently want the death penalty back (45-to-39% according to YouGov). Polls in the pop press are always in favour. We like the sound of killing the wicked.
But it’ll never happen. We don’t have the stomach – populist turn notwithstanding – for the sequence of unpleasant decisions we’ll need to make in order to get there. Here are the seven questions we don’t have the courage to answer.
1. Who will do it? A court-appointed executioner like in the old days? How about a group of ordinary citizens pressing buttons at home? Executioners on the Internet, drawn by lottery, like jury service. Surely the firing squad should be crowd-sourced? And, once appointed, how will the executioner cope with the attention of the media? Will she or he be allowed to sell the story? Pictures? Or will the law mandate anonymity? Will executioners be protected from law suits brought by the condemned’s family?
2. How will we do it? Lethal injection? Electrocution? Hanging? None has a great track record. None is humane (and who will supply the drugs? Big Pharma’s not interested). How will we decide? It’ll take a decade. High-tech solutions will be proposed (shot into the vacuum of space? Instantaneous robotic dismemberment? Nanoexecutioners?). The debate will rage. Campaigners on both sides will mount judicial challenges. It’ll be chaos and, as soon as the first horrendous screw-up happens, it’ll all start again.
3. Will we do it publicly and who will observe? Should judicial killings be be done quietly and in private? Or will the spectacle be part of the process. Streamed online from multiple angles (in 3D), with a panel of citizens obliged to observe from close quarters , posting to Instagram as they do?
4. Will a doctor be present? Someone will need to ensure it’s done tidily and then certify death. Does the Hippocratic oath permit that? Will the doctors? And if they don’t, will rogue medics show up to do the honours or will we have to create a new class of state-appointed ‘execution doctors’? Paramedics with a licence to kill?
5. What will we do with the body? Will we consign the dead to a secure graveyard or permit shrines to arise in public cemeteries? How about mandatory cremation and scattering on a rubbish dump? Will we forbid elaborate funerals and celebrations? Will the celebrity magazines be invited?
6. What will we do the first time an innocent person is killed? Will the new law have provision for automatic compensation? A fixed fee per wrongful death, a scale of charges? Will executions cease while standards of evidence are examined and investigations reviewed? Could the death penalty actually survive a mistake? Or would we be back at square one?
7. And what about death row? Will there be a single, national facility (designed by a rock star architect, perhaps, with an atrium and a green roof) where the condemned work through their decades of appeals? Or will each prison keep a mini-death row of its own? Will the inhabitants be allowed access to the media, the net, Twitter accounts? Will there be a reality TV show?
There are other questions: will we execute young people or people with learning disabilities? Will we execute parents of young children? Will we execute foreigners, veterans, addicts? Will the new law require derogation from international human rights law? Will Britain become a pariah once it rejoins the club that includes all the most hideous regimes on earth (and the United States)? Will the first executions for fifty-odd years bring about unrest? Can a civilised state tolerate the reintroduction of state killing? Will it dehumanise us and our children? And if MPs can even contemplate the prospect of another nasty and divisive debate about this grimmest of all subjects, who will draft the bill, draw up the regulations, implement the policy? Will civil servants who object be forced to? Will employment tribunals consider the dismissals of conscientious objectors? And so on. And so on.
Like I said, we don’t have the stomach for it. Britain is better without it.
Originally published in a longer form on my blog.