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The Old, Old Story

Denis Solomon • 843 words

”What about the victims?”. Well, what about them? What rights do victims of murder, or their loved ones, have that are denied them by murderers not being hanged?

David Elcock’s article headlined “What about the victims?” in The Independent of April 3 is a perfect example of the tendentious arguments that the more superficial of the supporters of the death penalty use to appeal to the emotions.

The article begins with a heavily ironic account of the position of the abolitionists, particularly the lawyers among them, whom Elcock calls ‘self-styled “concerned lawyers”’, as if there were something bad about proclaiming one’s concern with an issue of life and death, and as if the article itself were not a proclamation of Elcock’s own concern. It is as legitimate to be concerned for those about to die as for those who have died. Irony is as misplaced in one case as in the other.

Elcock then refers with even clumsier irony to the alternatives supposedly presented by the abolitionist position. He talks of “the clean cosy cells of our inmate-friendly prisons” and a “lifetime of fifteen or twenty years”. I do not know what to make of the first of these phrases. To whom is the irony directed? It would be understandable if the article were about imprisonment, not hanging, and if Elcock were criticising the proponents of imprisonment. In the present context the irony would only be meaningful if it were used by an abolitionist to describe what retentionists think the abolitionist position is about.
The second phrase puts words into the mouth of the abolitionists. The length of the prison term called “life imprisonment” forms no part of the abolitionist argument. Elcock has no right to imply that it does.

In the midst of all this Elcock refers to the time, effort and expense invested by the lawyers in “denying the hangman his lawful employment”. This is not only an offensive phrase in any serious discussion of the issue, but as an example of irony it, too, would be effective only in support of the opposite view. As for the time, effort and expense, these belong to the lawyers and they may do what they want with them. I will not play Elcock’s game by suggesting what he might think would be a more useful occupation for a lawyer.

Then comes the old story – ”What about the victims?”. Well, what about them? What rights do victims of murder, or their loved ones, have that are denied them by murderers not being hanged? The argument is either intellectually contemptible, a pure appeal to the emotions, or else it is a claim for the right of revenge, a right which runs contrary to the principles of law and of the Christian religion which I believe Elcock to profess. Carried to its logical conclusion, it would lead to the Saudi Arabian or Taleban position where the victim’s relatives are handed a Kalashnikov and told to get on with it.

The argument has, however, another and very dishonest implication. It implies not only that abolitionists are insensitive to the suffering of victims, but also that their position is motivated by sympathy with the condemned. It is not. It is motivated by concern for the society. Abolitionists do not want society to kill. They also do not want governments to have at their disposal such an easy excuse to escape the long hard task of minimising violence in the society as a whole. And they do not want innocent people executed, an occurrence that is possible in any country, and far from unlikely in one with the kind of police and judicial system we have.

Elcock also quite dishonestly confuses the constitutional principle on which abolitionists fight the death penalty with their reasons for supporting abolition. Abolitionists are against the death penalty not because it is “cruel and unusual”, but because it is degrading, futile and dangerous.

Elcock then describes a murder, and ends with an even more hackneyed variation on the emotional theme – what if the victim were someone dear to you? That, it must be admitted, is an argument that many abolitionists find hard to answer honestly. I remember Colin Laird, a pioneer of abolition in this country, struggling with it during a television interview. I have no problem with it at all. If someone dear to me were murdered, I would kill the murderer with my bare hands, and feel good about it afterwards (for, unlike Elcock, I am not a Christian). Then, according to Elcock, I ought to be hanged.

There is also a corollary to this argument that retentionists never mention. What if the murderer were someone dear to you?

The law ought to stop me taking a murderer’s life, not take it on my behalf. If by doing so it could reduce murder, there might be an argument for the death penalty. But even David Elcock cannot make that claim. He can only ironise about those who contest it. As for popular sentiment being in favour of the death penalty, this, if true, is merely a demonstration that there are more illogical than logical people in the world. Which ought to mean that Elcock has more readers than I do.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomon Page Top