Capital Punishment

Mauritius Times 60 years ago

2nd Year No 69
Friday – 2nd December 1955


• Everyone complains of his memory, no one of his judgment.
— La Rochefoucauld


Capital Punishment
Support for its abolition in Britain

Great Britain is one of the few civilised countries where the punishment for murder is death. In Britain, it is death by hanging; unless he appeals against the sentence, the murderer is hanged after three clear Sundays from the day on which he is sentenced.

On an average, thirteen people a year are hanged in Britain. For many years there was an assumption that women would not be hanged; this assumption grew up after the barbarous circumstances which surrounded the execution of Mrs Thompson. But it was an unfounded assumption, and a number of women murderers have been hanged in recent years, notably Ruth Ellis, earlier this year, and Mrs Merrifield a couple of years ago.

There has always been a body of opinion in Britain opposed to capital punishment, to the death penalty. So far, little headway has been in the fight against the death penalty; the House of Commons, with a Labour majority, agreed to suspend the death penalty for a period of five years, but the House of Lords — predominantly Conservative — reversed the Commons’ decision. Now, however, the campaign against capital punishment is growing and has gained fresh impetus in recent days.

The man whose activities have spotlighted attention on this issue is Victor Gollancz, well-known before the War as a left-wing publisher (he used to be a school-master) and the founder of the Left Book Club which, more than anything else, accustomed the people of Britain to an acceptance of socialist ideals and ideas. Then, near the end of the War, Gollancz published a series of half-crown booklets displaying the ineptitude of the Tory party and preparing the way for a post-War social revolution by constitutional means. His reward was the Labour victory in the 1945 General Election. Now he has espoused the cause of abolishing the death penalty.

As part of the campaign he has written and published a brilliant pamphlet – ‘The Heart of The Matter’. This costs one shilling. It expresses uncompromising opposition to capital punishment. The death penalty, declares Gollancz, must go.

Why must the death penalty go? Because, says Gollancz, going right to the basic principle and ignoring any side issue, no matter how attractive for debating purposes, “the reason Christ gives, We are all brothers in sin and should all be brothers in forgiveness… stands as wholly valid not merely for opposing capital punishment, but for opposing any kind of punishment whatever.”

The abolition of the death penalty is “the most urgent of all the tasks which confront us, or could confront any people that had a care for religious or human values”. Capital punishment is wrong and that is all there is to it. It is a moral issue, and no defence of the death penalty, on practical grounds, is relevant.

And why is it wrong? Because it is uncivilised. Because there is a commandment Thou shalt not kill. Because life is sacred. Because only God can give life; only God may take it away. After Mrs Thompson’s execution, it was said of her that if she had been allowed to live she could have become a very good woman. That sentence is, declares Gollancz, enough to end capital punishment, if only people bothered to think and feel enough.

But none of these reasons is Gollancz’s reason for supporting the case for the abolition of capital punishment. He rests his case on the imperative statement “Thou shalt do no unspeakable cruelty to any human being”. And this imperative, like the commandment above, you must either accept or reject. There is no, there can be no, argument about it.

And what is the alternative to the death penalty? At present, we live in an imperfect world. The death penalty for murder is retribution – an eye for an eye – the lex talionis. In place of it, Gollancz wants to see universal forgiveness (“unto seventy times seven”) and universal love for one’s enemies. As he says, we must try to be perfect “even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect, for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”.

Retaliation should be abolished; love should take its place. Be merciful to murderers, says Gollancz; take all precautions against the safety of the community being disturbed, but while doing so, say to the murderer, to every criminal, (and as Christ said to the woman taken in adultery, for which the punishment according to Jewish law was also death), “Go and sin no more”.

By Peter Ibbotson

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