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.