British waffling on death penalty will have global repercussions
For over half a century, abolitionists have wielded the United Kingdom’s conscientious, consistent, civilized opposition to capital punishment – in all cases and all circumstances – as a powerful argument to end the ignominious practice in their own countries and states, too. This may be about to end.
In a fiery column for The Independent with a blistering chyron-style title (“No Sajid Javid, you don’t get to make us all complicit in the state-sponsored murder of ISIS fighters”), British barrister and human rights campaigner Martha Spurrier writes: Although “Britain left the death penalty behind in 1965[,] [because it’s] cruel, inhuman and degrading – of the executed and the executioner [ – British Interior Minister/“Home Secretary”] Sajid Javid took a step back to the dark ages, abandoning the UK’s longstanding policy of denying extradition requests or intelligence sharing where they could be used to facilitate an execution.”
Muddying the waters, a Business Insider piece carried the headline “Theresa May refuses to back Javid’s decision to allow death penalty for British jihadis,” but incongruously allowed, in its first sentence, that actually: “May’s spokesperson today repeatedly refused to say whether the prime minister supports a decision to overturn Britain’s longstanding opposition to the death penalty, in an extradition deal with the Trump administration.”
With this moral quandary in the spotlight, and, all atangle – its life and death, even potentially torturous implications, fluid – and not fully resolved within the British government, it seems an appropriate time, and I hope a collegial space, as an abolitionist lawyer and writer in America, to echo barrister Spurrier’s exhortation that: (1) the British people “cannot ignore what the Americans are likely to do, wash our hands of responsibility and pretend it’s not our problem”; and, (2), doing so “undermines the UK’s leadership in encouraging others to join us in abolishing this cruel and inhumane practice.”
Indeed, my own writing has relied on the British people’s principled, staunch opposition to state-sponsored killing as a reason in and of itself to abolish capital punishment. For example, in Alabama, I published a piece called “Can Alabamians afford the specter of 16 or more scheduled executions in a row?”; in it, I observed: “We already know Europeans hate the death penalty by their refusal to ship lethal injection drugs to the US,” and, “after Saudi Arabia held mass executions, it was reported on January 15  by Eve Hartley of the Huffington Post that, ‘the brutal Saudi justice system [had] strain[ed] relations between’ Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.”
Further, in my own Huffington Post piece, “When Will the United States Stop Tinkering with the Machinery of Death,” I plaintively pointed out: “In the United States, we rightly condemn barbaric executions in other countries,” like in North Korea and Saudi Arabia, “where beheading remains a common practice,” and, “[w]e have especially condemned ISIS executions, executions that have included burning and burying people alive.”
Relevant to my British brothers and sisters today, I brooded: “Can the fact that US executions are not broadcast to the masses from some windswept desert in the Middle East, and occur, instead, in sterile prisons, under the color of law, really make such a difference? Isn’t it morally wrong to execute someone by [lethal injection,] reproducing the sensation of being buried alive, [drowning,] and burning them from the inside out? Aren’t we, as a nation, and as people, better than that? Shouldn’t we as the New York Times Editorial Board wrote, ‘join the rest of the civilized world and end the death penalty once and for all?’”
While that was over two years ago, recently I was uber-fortunate to spend a fortnight in England, and, while researching at the Harris Manchester College in Oxford – in the college’s venerable, wood-paneled library, its floor to ceiling stacks adorned by ancient treasures, marble busts, and glorious stained-glass windows – I happened upon several astute reflections concerning British evolution on capital punishment; these I located in “The Ethics of Punishment” by Sir Walter Moberly (Faber and Faber Limited 1968). Fortunately, I jotted a few of these down not knowing how handy, and worthy of serious reflection they’d become – especially in Britain right now.
Concluding that state killings have a “demoralizing and brutalizing tendency[,] familiarizing the public with horrors,” and “caus[ing] human life to be held cheap,” Sir Moberly’s tome decries these dastardly acts – all of them – as being a “deliberate infliction of torture [that] to [the British people] [is] unthinkable wickedness, degrading all who have any part in it, whether as agents, spectators or hearers after the event.”
On the brink of the very evil Sir Moberly decried, the United Kingdom would do well to consider an additional Moberly rumination pulled from another of his books, “The Crisis in the University” (SCM Press Ltd. 1949); principally concerning the educational philosophy of English universities from the standpoint of a Christian, it includes a passage that precisely illumines the weighty repercussions of this decision the British government is about to make – concerning critical and precedential death penalty policy – purportedly in the best interest of its people.
No mincer of words, Sir Moberly wisely and warily wrote: “The veneer of civilization has proved to be amazingly thin. Beneath it has been revealed, not only the ape and the tiger, but what is far worse – perverted and satanic man.”
About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq
The Harris Manchester’s library in Oxford, England | Courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper