THE BLACK CAP

“Licence to Kill, Britians’ surrender to  violence” David Fraser

I remember my mother telling me how when a murderer was convicted and was about to be sentenced the judge would put on a black cap before detailing the gruesome means by which his life would be taken from him (it was most likely to be a man) and it sent a chill down my spine that I can still feel today. That was the early sixties when capital punishment was still enacted in the UK. It was abolished in 1964, temporarily at first, then permanently and finally made more secure through the adoption of the provision in the European convention of human rights in 1981. It was decision made by our representatives in parliament. The people, controversially were not allowed a vote. Public opinion seemed to have been against that decision for many years. The public mood today, however has changed and a plebiscite now is unlikely to achieve a return to “state killing”.

Despite my over vivid imagination and weak stomach, that decision troubled me at the time and does still. I was never convinced that it was right, but with the strength of emotion that it provoked, it has never been an easy subject to discuss. The idea that the state, to which I belonged, could sanction the taking of any life, doing so in my name, was utterly abhorrent. Strangely the same sympathy, somehow, was not extended to enemy combatants or civilians who were killed in war, to those yet unborn or those in a “vegetative” state. It was the taking the life of a fit viable person, who otherwise had a future, that was so appalling.  George Orwell’s essay “A Hanging” captures this emotion so grippingly especially in the way the condemned man avoids a puddle in the road on the way to his death.

So through the years, in my mind there has been this unresolved battle between the logic of just retribution and the emotional flood of sympathy for human life. To my mind, the logic of just retribution, the state taking vengeance for the individual is unrefutably.  It draws a line over the event in the sense that it has been paid for. The moors murders took place when I was only 15, and I often wondered if the murderers’ were executed then, there would be a genuine sense of public closure. As it happened, the presence of this evil was never far from the news throughout the next five decades. It also gives the victim’s family and loved ones some form of satisfaction in a sense of justice and at the same time takes away the impulse for revenge. Despite arguments to the contrary it does provide a demonstratable deterrence to would-be killers.

David Fraser in “Licence to kill”  points this out in his meticulous researched and powerful study “Licence to KillBritain’s surrender to violence”. He does not advocate a return to capital punishment, nor would I, but he does show with clear evidence and thorough research that the absence of this option has led to a steady increase in murder and not the opposite as is so often perceived.  

When it came to life sentence, I believed, as I guess most people did at the time, that it meant what it said; that the individual would lose their freedom for the rest of their life. It seemed at the time a just and fair outcome and avoided the state actually taking someone’s life.

Now we know how movers and shakers play with language often quite dishonestly to shape opinion in the way they want and make inconvenient facts more palatable. Tower blocks become “courts”,  killing innocents becomes “collateral damage”, unborn infants, “foetus”, euthanasia, “death with dignity”, but, at the time, I honestly believed that “life” meant life. But it never did it was 20 years halved for remission and here David Fraser’s exposure of the abject failure of the justice system combined with the probation service in a systemic propensity to lenient sentencing and careless early release, is devastating. Violent criminals, who knew how to work the system, were all to soon back on the streets to reignite their own brand of havoc and misery. The poor, as they inevitably do, were the ones who suffered. Meanwhile the people responsible for the leniency, the politicians, judges and probation officers were generally unaffected, living in quiet suburbs away from the urban war that was raging and able to sleep easily at night.

The issue is, of course, an ideological one.  It is whether we believe that every human being is inherently good with a propensity for doing bad things depending on environment, upbringing and circumstance or whether we believe that while individuals may be basically good there are those who are essentially evil, who given the freedom, will steal rape torture and maim at will and  who can only be restrained with proper retribution and with the fear that, if caught, they would face the most severe punishment. That’s the ideological battle and one that those in power in the UK have been winning since the sixties. Against the common sense of the people, Britain has surrendered to violence.

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