A Mail on Sunday poll this week reveals that “more than half of Britons want a return of the death penalty,” and this prompts me to reflect on a recent prison visit I made, in order to read from, and discuss, one of my novels – a meditation on life and death. As I sat and discussed the themes of the work with a group of inmates, the majority of them lifers, it dawned on me that there was more truth here, in this prison library, than there was on the outside – beyond these cells, bars, walls and perimeter fences – in the offices of politicians and journalists.
The men before me, hard and troubled men who had committed violent crime, and in some cases had killed, talked frankly of what they had done, and why they did what they did. If the Mail on Sunday had its way, however, more than half of them would now be dead, their fates sealed with a lethal injection, the preferred method of the newspaper’s intelligent and compassionate readers. The rag prides itself on encouraging “public debate in a society where hardly anyone has been taught how to think, while millions have been taught what to think,” in the words of its chief columnist Peter Hitchens, yet at the same time profits from a populist, conservative and bigoted editorial line – for this sells the most newspapers – and is utterly intolerant of any opinion which contradicts its own. It would far rather its readers not think, because if they did, its sales would likely plummet.
Talking to these inmates and hearing their different stories, it was clear that their violent acts were not the product of evil, as the likes of Hitchens would have us believe, but rather were born out of a personal horror, of a kind that the privileged politician or journalist cannot, in his worst nightmare, conceive of, though he is still ready and willing to pass judgment on these fallen men, sure in the knowledge that they must be condemned not understood. When the inmate Jimmy pulled out a pump-action shotgun and shot the man who had sexually assaulted his daughter, he did so not in a cool gesture of premeditated evil but in a desperate fit of blind rage.
I am tired of the righteous rhetoric from the likes of Hitchens, who believes that the British justice system has been made soft by social liberals and cultural Marxists – of which I am one – prison a mere breeze for its inhabitants. It is one thing, Peter, to visit Wormwood Scrubs, but quite another to be incarcerated there. I doubt you’d last long, even with the apparent luxuries of a television set or video game console. You’re not mentally, or indeed physically, tough enough. In his work, A Brief History of Crime, Hitchens argues that poverty and other forms of social deprivation do not cause crime, that the former principle of “due punishment of responsible persons” be reinstated i.e. the reintroduction of capital punishment, and that we give up, once and for all, on namby-pamby modern theories of rehabilitation.
Hitchens, and other social conservatives, such as Theodore Dalrymple aka Anthony Daniels, insist that the only remedy for our increasingly criminal society is the abandonment of any notion of rehabilitation and an immediate return to Victorian justice and punishment in the Puritan mould. Hence, the only way to deal with a murderer is to kill him, and if the Old Testament’s eye for an eye cannot be met, then at the very least he needs to be hurled in solitary for the remainder of his despicable life with nothing but a copy of the King James Bible for solace. For in Hitchens’ world, moral virtue can only be acquired through the practice and discipline of religious faith, and capital punishment is consistent with the Christian belief in forgiveness – though God knows how!
The young Peter might have been an atheist like his older brother – he was also a Trotskyite – yet his growing disillusionment with socialism pushed him, first, to political conservatism, then, to God. This is an all too familiar path for the bitter Conservative, the liberal and progressive heart turned so sour that it now despises what it used to love. Hitchens and Dalrymple, though the latter is an atheist, are one and the same in this respect. They blame liberal intellectuals for minimising the responsibility of individuals for their own actions and undermining traditional mores, both of which have, according to the po-faced right-wing couple, contributed to the formation within Britain, and other rich countries, of an underclass afflicted by violence, criminality, welfare dependency and drug abuse. And yet was the inmate Jimmy – he subsequently died in prison – really a product of this new underclass, and did liberal intellectuals make it permissible for him to take revenge in the manner he did?
The answer to both is a resounding, No! Jimmy did what he did out of rage, a rage born out of love for his daughter, the thought of her violation unbearable. Was it more likely that Jimmy, a working class lad born into abject poverty in postwar Britain, would resort to violence in defense of his family, than, let us say, the privately educated Peter Hitchens, born in Malta and of sound military stock. Yes, of course it was. Jimmy was born into violence, it commonly employed by his family and class to resolve all manner of grievances and disputes, and though this does not justify what he did it surely goes some way to explaining it. And though the likes of Dalrymple would posit that Jimmy is the classic manifestation of this dreadful underclass – this mass of nihilistic, decadent and welfare dependent poor people given license by Champagne-sipping liberals to live badly and destructively – I would posit, rather, that Jimmy, far from brazenly taking the law into his own hands and acting with all the characteristic ignorance, arrogance and irresponsibility of the underclass to which he purportedly belongs, was consumed by such rage that he, quite literally, lost his mind and committed an awful act. He talked about what had happened to him when I met him, and wrote about his violence in subsequent letters, taking full responsibility for his actions, expressing deep remorse, and eager to make amends as best he could.
This is a difficult notion for social conservatives to grasp as they tend to be cold-hearted, unsympathetic beasts. Short of warmth and compassion in their own hearts, and hence the capacity to forgive, they struggle to comprehend how a man like Jimmy could be so swept up in the whirl and turmoil of anger and grief that he could do as he did. And so they then conclude – so sure are they that we must all live a certain way, their way – that something like capital punishment is an effective deterrent. Had the death penalty been in place, would this have deterred Jimmy from pulling the trigger of his shotgun? No, it would not. Because such was the state of his mind and heart that practicable and reasonable considerations about how he might be punished carried no weight at that fateful moment.
I pray that Hitchens never gets his way. For if he did, we’d be forever subject to his pedagogic discipline, the great fuminator demanding that we live differently i.e. his way, and that any other way is improper, bankrupt and immoral. But I also pray he does not get his way because I would rather live in a compassionate society, one driven to understand and forgive, not condemn and punish.