The Abolition of the Death Penalty and IS Violence

Fifty years ago today, the death penalty in Great Britain was abolished by The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965. Northern Ireland retained the death penalty for murder until 1973, and in fact it wasn’t until 1988 and the Human Rights Act and the Crime and Disorder Act that the four reserved categories — high treason, piracy with violence, arson in royal dockyards and espionage — were also removed. The last executions in the U.K. took place in 1964, for murder.

Both at the time and since, the overwhelming case for abolishing the death penalty was and is the potential miscarriage of justice. Better a guilty person should live than that an innocent person should die; and as we know to our sorrow, there have been some grave miscarriages of justice which would have resulted in the death of innocent people had the death penalty not been abolished. Why, then, do some countries still insist on keeping the death penalty, and why are some notorious for the numbers they execute? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think it is a question worth exploring because we have a tendency to think that the world operates on the same principles as we do ourselves. That is patently not true and can lead to all sorts of complications and misunderstandings. Perhaps those four categories of crime excluded from the orignal Act provide a clue, however. They are all to do with perceived threats against national security and identity. The death penalty is the ultimate expression of insecurity — fear of the enemy within, the stranger in our midst, and so on.

Every day brings more stories of the horrific violence inflicted by IS and its followers. I don’t pretend to understand or share its world-view, but of this I am certain. The murder of those who offend against its codes, often just by not being Muslims themselves, perpetrated as it with such ungodly glee, are a sign of the moral bankruptcy of IS and an indication of its ultimate failure. It has taken us nearly two thousand years to understand that the death penalty isn’t the way to deal with crime, even the most dreadful. Let us pray that IS may wake up to that realisation, too — and soon.


7 thoughts on “The Abolition of the Death Penalty and IS Violence”

  1. Unfortunately, I believe that it is actually worse than that. IS is also waging war against those who aren’t the ‘right kind’ of Muslim or who don’t ascribe to exactly the same beliefs and practices.

    The nearest direct comparison we have is of the persecution of Christians by fellow Christians following the Reformation. Although the laws were eventually relaxed, there was certainly a climate of mistrust and possibly even hate against Catholics which existed here into the 1950’s.

    Let us pray that it doesn’t take 400 years for Muslims to learn to live with other Muslims let alone accept those who have other beliefs. It is a sad world of mutual mistrust, fear and hate.

    • I agree on the comparison ;

      however if you think suspicion etc of Catholics ended in the 1950s think again. Born in the 60s and attending Catholic schools in the 70/80 there was plenty of mocking and suspicious hostility towards Catholics from our neighboring CofE children. Even today in adult social settings I encounter it occasionally albeit in this same town which in penal times yes did have a reputation as heavily protestant. It took a mighty struggle to build a Catholic Church here 130 years ago – the town would not sell any land – in the end the independent railway company sold off some spare land. Ugly as it is the old prejudice is still present.


      Excellent blog dear Sister, thank you.

  2. The legal murder of another human being, which describes the death penalty, seems to me to breech the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill! I can see no justification of taking the route of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ despite it being in the bible.

    Miscarriages of justice, particularly the Timothy Evans mock trial and his execution and perhaps that of Ruth Ellis as well, changed the public mind. But we still went on and Hanged James Hanratty for the A6 murders and some say that also was a miscarriage of justice. I don’t know the ins and outs of that case, but I do know that a lot of people were uneasy when the death penalty was banned – they’d grown up with a justice system of killing, and it took time for them to adjust.

    IS violence and killing just seems to mindless. It’s genocide on a huge scale, just on the basis of not ‘being one of them’. It’s going to take a lot to end their violence, and it seems to be that only, united global action under the auspices of the United Nations might resolve it. The Arab nations themselves, including our supposed allies, are doing little to contain or eliminate their evil. Only Jordan is able to say that it has taken the fight to them, and has also taken in millions of displaced Syrian refugee’s. Lebanon has also assisted with refugee’s, but some Islamic fighters from their have joined the fight in Syria and Iraq, I’m not sure of what affect their presence there has done for whatever cause they’re pursuing.

    We face an uncertain and insecure world – the days of Empire are long gone and people are trying to find some sort of ethnic or cultural identity that they can live in. I can only pray that they find the ‘peace of Jesus Christ’ on that journey.

  3. I live in a country which has (and uses) the death penalty. I have not seen anything that convinces me that it is an effective deterrent to murder. I have seen arguments that convince me that it is applied unevenly, falling far more often on those of lesser means. I am opposed to it, but find that quite a lot of my fellow citizens are not. To steal an argument from Aldous Huxley, the ends can never justify the means, because the means in fact condition the end. The violent solution to murder (I believe) leads itself to a deepening culture of violence and death, cheapens life, and additionally desensitizes so many to violent means. It is not only morally repugnant, it is self defeating.

  4. In 1984 I began to make a series of 90-minute drives from Houston to Huntsville, Texas because someone on death row would be executed at midnight. As we kept silent, candlelit vigil, all around us mobs of students from nearby Sam Houston University, soused on cheap beer, made fun of us, held up home-made signs with death-dealing slogans, shouting “Fry the bastard!” with real hatred in their voices. It was a communal celebration of vengeance, even though they themselves had not been personally wronged.

    In the state of Texas, “hang ’em high” rhetoric is still preached hand in hand with fundamentalist Christianity. It will be a very long time before my heavily Republican adopted state will ever lay aside its self-righteous demand for “an eye for an eye.”

    People in Texas (and other states) talk a lot about the death penalty “bringing closure” to the victims. Politicians and police use that rhetoric to justify state-sponsored killing. As a “victim” myself, I know that anyone who seeks “closure” by waiting through all the many appeals and the decades it takes finally to have the perpetrator executed has waited in vain. The pain and anger will never end that way. Innocent people will die, and poor people and people of color will die more often.

    When my father’s murderers were caught and brought to trial in New Jersey, many demanded the death penalty for the married couple. Many simply assumed that was what my family wanted. The judge expressed regret that, for various legal reasons, he could only sentence the man to several consecutive life terms. When interviewed, my mother spoke of her struggle to forgive as Christ taught and I and my siblings voiced our united opposition to the death penalty. We all knew that it would change nothing, serve nothing if Dad’s death was followed by more death, more violence, more tragedy. It would only continue the chain of misery.

    I am ashamed that, unlike all other western democracies, the U.S. continues to believe that the death penalty can create real justice, as if it “worked” as a deterrent, as if it prevented violent crime. It’s as if we, as a society, make a deal with ourselves: if we kill the “bad” people, the “other” people, we will be safe.

    Nowadays Texas executes people at 6 pm. No more midnight vigils. But from 5 to 6 pm small groups of us stand in front of sympathetic churches throughout the state to remind passersby that yet again someone will be executed. Today. Right now. We hold up a real person’s name, a real person’s face. We do it to witness that there are, or should be, limits to the power of the state, and that the sacredness of one human life is inviolable. It is not for us to say who will live and who will die.

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