The electric chair, the hangman’s rope, the guillotine. The debate on capital punishment divides people in Britain very neatly into two groups; those for and those against, because this issue is all black and white; there is no grey area.
In the USA, where over 85% of the population over the age of 21 approve of the death penalty, juveniles and ‘mentally deficient’ people can be executed. In the many states which still have the death penalty, some use the electric chair, which can take up to 20 minutes to kill, while others use gas or lethal injections.
In Britain, capital punishment lasted until 1965, when it was abolished by Parliament. There have been 14 attempts since then to reintroduce it – all unsuccessful.
The pro-hanging lobby uses four main arguments to support its call for the reintroduction of capital punishment. First there is the deterrence theory, which states that potential murderers would think twice before committing the act if they knew that they might also die if they were caught. The armed bank robber might, likewise, decide to leave his sawn-off shotgun at home and go back to being an ordinary robber.
Next is the idea of public security. If the death penalty were reinstated, it would mean that a convicted murderer would not be set free after serving 20 years or less of a life sentence and be able to go on to murder again. The general public would, therefore, be safer.
The other two arguments are more suspect. The idea of retribution demands that criminals should get what they deserve; if a murderer intentionally sets out to commit a crime, he should accept the consequences. Retribution, which is just another word for revenge, is supported by the religious doctrine of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
The fourth main pro-hanging argument is the most cold-blooded. It is that it makes economic sense to hang convicted murderers rather than have them in prison wasting taxpayers’ money.
The arguments against the death penalty are largely humanitarian. But there are also statistical reasons for opposing it: the deterrence figures do not add up. In Britain, 1903 was the record year for executions and yet in 1904 the number of homicides actually rose. 1946 also saw an unusually high number of executions followed in 1947 by another rise in the murder rate. If the deterrence theory was correct, the rate should have fallen.
The second main argument against reintroducing capital punishment is that innocent people are sometimes wrongly convicted and, while people can be released from prison, they cannot be brought back from the dead if they have been hanged.
The other reasons to oppose the death penalty, which are largely a matter of individual conscience and belief, are firstly that murder is murder and this includes state executions. The state has no more right to take a life than the individual. Indeed, the state should set an example to the individual by not taking lives. It is believed to be a measure of its civilization that a state acts more humanely than its citizens. The second is that Christianity preaches forgiveness, not revenge.