Tag Archives: Crime

You may think you want the death penalty but you don’t have the stomach for it

Surveys suggest that a majority of ordinary Britons want a return to the death penalty for the most heinous crimes (this online poll on The Sun’s web site has 80% in favour). And, thanks to the government’s rules for e-petitions, our legislators may soon be obliged to debate the topic again. Some of them may even vote for it. I’m opposed to the return of the death penalty and I find the pop media’s pro-execution rhetoric to be chilling and inhuman but I’m certain that it will never happen. Britain just doesn’t have the stomach for the cascade of secondary decisions that we’d have to make in order for it to become law:

Who will do it? A court-appointed executioner? How about a group of ordinary citizens pressing buttons at home, none of them knowing whose button actually does the deed? Or the victim’s family? I’ll suggest that executioners are drawn by lottery from the list of people who’ve expressed support for the new law. That sounds logical: it surely can’t be OK to vote for the death penalty and expect someone else to despatch the condemned, can it? If there’s a chance that you’ll have to squeeze the syringe, will you still vote for it? And, once appointed, how will the executioner cope with the attention of the media? Will he or she be allowed to sell the story of the condemned’s last moments? Or will the law mandate anonymity? And what will happen the first time the family of an executed criminal brings a civil case against the executioner or the prison or everyone involved in the deed?

How will we do it? A lethal injection? Electrocution? Hanging? None has a great track record. None is humane. How will we decide? It’ll take a decade. High-tech solutions will be proposed (shot into the vacuum of space? Instantaneous robotic dismemberment? Nanoexecutioners?). The debate will rage. Campaigners on both sides will mount judicial challenges. It’ll be chaos and, as soon as the first horrendous screw-up happens, it’ll all start again.

Will we do it publicly and who will observe? I’ll argue that judicial killings should be streamed online from multiple angles (in 3D) and that a panel of ordinary citizens should be obliged to observe from close quarters – selected by the jury service process, perhaps.

And will a doctor be present? Someone will need to ensure good practice and certify death. Does the Hippocratic oath permit that? Will the BMA? And if they don’t, will rogue doctors show up to do the honours or will we have to create a new class of state-appointed ‘execution doctors’?

What will we do with the body? Will we consign the dead to a secure prison graveyard or permit shrines to arise in public cemeteries? How about mandatory cremation and scattering? Will we forbid elaborate funerals and celebrations of the lives of the wicked deceased?

What will we do the first time an innocent person is executed? Will the new law have provision for automatic compensation? Will executions cease while standards of evidence are examined and investigations reviewed? Could the death penalty actually survive a mistake? Or would we be back at square one?

And what about death row? Will there be a single, national facility (designed by a rockstar architect, perhaps, with an atrium) where the condemned work through their decades of appeals? Or will each prison keep a mini-death row of its own? Will the inhabitants be allowed access to the media, web sites, Twitter accounts? Will there be a reality TV show?

There are other questions: will we execute young people or people with learning disabilities? Will we execute mothers of young children? Will we execute foreigners? Will the new law require derogation from international human rights law? Will Britain become a pariah once it rejoins the club that includes all the most hideous regimes on earth (and the United States)? Will the first executions for nearly fifty years bring about civil unrest? Can a civilised state tolerate the introduction of state-sanctioned killing? Will it dehumanise us and our children? Will MPs even contemplate the prospect of another nasty and divisive debate about the grimmest of all subjects? Who will draft the bill, draw up the regulations, implement the policy? Will civil servants and prison officers who object be forced to implement the law? Will employment tribunals consider the dismissals of conscientious objectors? And so on. And so on. Like I said, we don’t have the stomach for it.

London’s stabbing epidemic

The stabbing epidemic in London is puzzling. Not the grief and suffering of victims and families: that’s not puzzling (I get that part). It’s the behaviour of the perpetrators. It’s as if they’re all stupid. In fact it’s a stupidity epidemic. Correct me here if I’ve got this wrong, but as far as I know every single stabbing this year has been quickly followed by an arrest or arrests. There have already been convictions and there will surely be more—and there was no need to call in CSI here. In fact, typically, the arrest seems to involve no detective work at—just a cursory look round the corner for the wide-eyed teen with the blood-stained blade.

I really don’t want to be flippant about this. It’s hardly funny. But these kids seem to be displaying the most basic self-destructive behaviour. In the moment he draws his kitchen knife or his switchblade, the killer is throwing away the life of his victim and, along with it, his own. And don’t argue with me on this, I’ll allow no contradiction here: no murderer, no matter how lenient his sentence, is returning to normal life any time soon: that’s a life ruined, a life flushed away, whatever the actual penalty.

So we’re dealing with an outbreak of ghastly, aimless nihilism. Kids stabbing kids, kids trashing lives, kids robbing families of loved-ones. And, while they’re at it, consigning themselves to punishment, marginalisation, poverty and self-hate—to the animal existence of the outcast—for decades hence. It’s a small social disaster and we seem to have no tools to deal with it. We’re lost. The only guidance on offer is coming from talk radio and the tabloids and it has nothing to commend it: it’s just more of the same.

If kids are ready to slash and stab and destroy lives on a whim, in return for precisely nothing (no pecuniary gain, no honour, no respect—at least nothing that lasts longer than the terror of the moment) how is a stiffer sentence going to influence them? Does anyone seriously think that even a life-means-life sentence in a labour camp could alter behaviour in those fevered seconds? Does anyone have the faintest clue what motivates a child (or a near child) to the hormonal frenzy of a street corner stabbing? No. I thought not.

Real live card fraud

Duty Manager at Tesco Radlett examines the card skimmer from his ATM, 31 September 2005
So this is how those card skimming ATM false fronts work: the device is very simple, made from moulded polystyrene (or similar), engineered to fit one ATM model and spray-painted in a colour close enough to the real thing with all of the appropriate card logos glued on.

The business end of the device (behind the thin polystyrene front) seems to include a card reader for recording stripes (and, presumably storing them in a simple, time-stamped format) but no way of recording PINs. Of course, the scary thing about that last bit of information is that it requires the skimmer to hang around and watch you type in your PIN and then record it (write it down, I suppose), with an approximate time stamp, so that it can be matched up with its stripe later on.

The thing obviously doesn’t have a radio so it looks like the only way to harvest its store of stripes is to recover the false front itself, which, given what happened at Tesco in Radlett yesterday, implies a certain redundancy – they must have a stack of these things in a lock-up somewhere.