The death penalty shows its true colours

By Simon Barrow
January 16, 2008

Ex-Conservative MP Michael Portillo was on TV last night, documenting his attempts to discover whether there is a "humane" way for the state to kill people found guilty of heinous crimes.

In an earlier interview on Channel 4's Richard & Judy teatime slot, Portillo described himself as "agnostic" on the issue of the death penalty, having voted both for and against it in parliament. He was against it in the UK, he said, but respected the different approach of other cultures.

The programme added more evidence against state executions, however. First, at no little risk to the programme presenter himself, it showed that none of the existing methods of administering the death penalty could be described as secure, painless and reliable )regardless of their overall rightness or wrongness).

Second, the one method that Portillo said passed these tests, altitude-derived hypoxia (denial of oxygen) was rudely rejected by a representative of the pro-capital punishment lobby, who proclaimed that death sentences should be painful and punitive in the way they were carried out, not just in their results.

Portillo's protest that the state should at least avoid replicating the lack of concern for dignity and decency shown by many murderers cut no ice, and nor did an appeal for humanity.

It illustrated very well that arguments for state execution are often not finally about reason, but feed a spirit of hatred and revenge. As such they demean those who advocate them.

This is aside from forensic arguments about the dubiety of deterrence theories, theological arguments for grace and the suspension of ultimate judgement, and social justice arguments about the unequal effect of the punishment.

As an old civil rights poster in the US once starkly put it: "Capital punishment means those without the capital get the punishment."

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