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Dr Lynette Nusbacher Headshot

Guido's Capital Punishment Petition: An Opportunity

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Ah, the rope.

A few yards of hemp, boiled and stretched, dangling from the gallows and righting wrongs. It is such a simple, tempting thing.

There was a particularly horrible multiple murder case a few years back that caused me to think about the rope. Permitting the foulest, coldest-blooded murderers to go on living was such an affront to my sensibilities.

"Hang 'em high", I thought loudly. "Hang 'em higher than Haman! Pass a special Act of Parliament to enable their execution!"

I'm sure I didn't imagine that capital punishment could possibly deter other mad serial killers, or that years of appeals could save the Crown money, but stringing them up seemed so very appropriate for their crimes. It was intuitively satisfying to deal death in return for death.

Nowadays vengeance and blood feud have been polished up and restyled as "justice for the victim". In this context how can anything less than execution be acceptable? In the Dark Ages we had a system of wergild: there was a tariff attached to murder and maiming. Kill a free man his survivors take 200 shillings instead of demanding blood. Now half of us reject that primitive Anglo-Saxon concept. We want the rope.

Governments, even cuddly European ones, are generally comfortable with the idea of killing people to achieve policy aims. In recent months, in an attempt to protect the lives of Libyans, we've killed hundreds of them. They were largely armed and wearing matching soldier outfits which appears to make the killing legitimate. Killing somebody in a prison uniform to achieve a criminal justice goal is just another sort of state-sanctioned killing.

It is not difficult to imagine the 50% of Britons who approve of capital punishment tuning in to watch an execution. A few years ago there was a campaign in California to televise executions. I assumed, perhaps naively, that the campaign was undertaken by those who supported capital punishment and who wished to see it made a potent deterrent. I was wrong: opponents of capital punishment advocated this new adventure in reality television, and they were opposed by supporters of California's gas chamber (since replaced by a lethal injection programme). If half the population of the UK are ready to kill, doing it on pay-per-view represents a vast potential market share that puts "I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here" in the shade.

Any reform of our penal system should also look at punishment for lesser crimes. During my year working in criminology I discovered a book which advocated painful electric shock as a salutary replacement for imprisonment. The argument runs that putting people in prison doesn't reform, doesn't deter and hurts the offender's family more than it hurts the offender. Just give him the modern equivalent of a flogging, do it in public, and then let him go home hurting, humiliated and a little bit wiser. The book is remarkably well-reasoned, and if the state is ready to kill then a fortiori the state should be ready to hurt.

Gas chambers and hospital trolleys are part of the important infrastructure of death. The Aberdare Report of 1887 reported the lamentable standards of executioners and their equipment. This led Her Majesty's Government to adopt a standard rope made by John Edgington and Company, makers of fine marquees and tents. We adopted a standard of training and a table of drops. This tried to ensure that when the judge said swing they swung properly with no unseemly decapitation or strangulation.

Of course we would have to re-create that infrastructure anew. We would have to train hangmen (or would the Royal College of Physicians permit its members to poison the condemned in the American fashion?) We would have to cope with post-traumatic stress: in the old days hangmen used to drink themselves into insensibility which likely didn't help their long-term mental health. Perhaps we could train up our executioners and pension them off after just the one killing. Perhaps we could employ only psychotics as hangmen: psychotics are immune to post-traumatic stress, and while their employment in the prison service might be hard on their co-workers it would help slake the public's thirst for vengeance.

For a society to think about introducing the ultimate sanction, its criminal justice system must function very well indeed. The society must have a very refined understanding of penology and a highly developed set of criteria for discovering who can be reformed and who cannot. The issue of punishing people for being mentally ill must be clearly resolved. Such a system must be firmly rooted in universal shared ethics. Crime and punishment in this society must have a decades-long record of immunity to considerations of race, class and gender. Policing and the courts must be incorruptible, far from electoral politics and insulated from the demands of the mob.

A society with a flawless criminal justice system might be ready to add the rope to its array of corrections and deterrents. Paul Staines, the gadfly author of the Guido Fawkes blog, has set off a Silly Season discussion of restoring the rope. Whatever his intentions, Staines gives us an opportunity to consider the shortcomings of our enormous and overstuffed system of public and private gaols, prison hulks and titan prisons.

The rope tempts us to think of simple solutions to complicated questions of crime and punishment. Let it also bring us to a discussion of better ways to reform, punish and protect.