“Announcing that the board of trade is about to remove the ban on turned-up trouser ends, a tailor’s advertisement hails this as ‘a first installment of the freedom for which we are fighting’. If we are really fighting for turned up trouser-ends, I should be inclined to be pro-Axis. Turn-ups have no function except to gather dust and no virtue except that when you clean them you occasionally find a six-pence there.” Geroge Orwell discussing the war aims in some detail in ‘As I please’ 4th February 1944.
‘As I please’ was the title George Orwell used for many of his articles whilst a contributor to the left-wing publication Tribune during the 1940s.
These articles covered a vast variety of topics from the defeat of fascism to the makings of a really good cup of tea, such was the eclecticism of Orwell’s writing.
At best they demonstrate Orwell’s supremacy in radical thought – by which he would have meant the facing of uncomfortable truths.
One of the best examples of this is his defence of the bombing of German civilians. For Orwell, in meeting one’s war aims, it is better to kill a broad cross section of society – the old and the young, men and women – rather than to desimate the entire population of one group such as fighting age men. His arguement was that a society will recover more quickly form the former course of action than the latter. An unpalatable thought but probably true.
And I have decided to appropriate the title ‘As I please’ for a number of occasional trips off topic I intend to make this year. A kind of homage to Orwell.
The only rule will be that they attempt to offer a radical piece of thinking in an Orwellian tradition.
First up is a thought that the death penalty is the surest form of escape from punishment.
In the UK we rarely think about the death penalty. It has been a very long time since we decided it was an inappropriate punishment in a civilised society and stories of people being sent to the gallows now have a sepia tint and the recurrent stench of miscarried justice.
Of course, our consciousness of the subject is periodically raised by stories from across the pond. Stories of Governors trying to show they are tough on crime by ending the lives of a record number of prisoners, inmates enduring intolerable years on death row and incompetent executioners taking inordinate amounts of time to successfully inject their lethal chemicals. We regard it all with a morbid curiosity and relief that this practice is part of our past and not our present – like bear bating, imperialism and cholera.
That was until Iraq, of course, and our implication in the unseemly disposal of its former head of state. Putting aside the question of why, if his crimes were against humanity, Saddam was not tried by an international court as we demand these days, the whole sorry and sordid episode has reinvigorated my opposition to capital punishment in general.
This opposition is not principally because state murder reduces the nation to the moral degeneracy of the criminal, though I think that it does. It is not principally because of its finality, offering no redress in the event of a conviction being subsequently found unsound, though this troubles me. It is not even principally because our universal moral compass as human beings prohibits us from killing other human beings, though I think that it does unless our lives are directly threatened.
It is because the death penalty is a very poor form of punishment especially when the crimes are so heinous as this.
In fact, in executing the condemned the State is preventing any sort of real punishment because in death one offers the criminal the surest form of escape – the absence of life.
Death may act as a deterrent (although this is doubtful amongst power crazed megalomaniacs), it clearly acts as a form of rather repugnant retribution for those affected by the actions of the convicted and it certainly acts as a punishment for the family of the person put to death but in what way does it affect the criminal?
Sure, the prelude to death is an extreme form of mental punishment but in the case of Saddam the period between conviction and execution (a matter of days) was so short it seems a derisory period of distress for the crimes that he committed. If one adds the time in which Saddam was incarcerated prior to his trial and the trial itself to his hours on death row he received less punishment for his crimes against humanity than the average burglar.
Of course, there will be those that still cling to some sort of life after death fantasy, for whom the prospect that Saddam is spending eternity in the firey depths of hell warms the cockles of their misplaced hearts. But no doubt Saddam believed he was straight off to an eternity in paradise. Either way, our earthly wishful thinking doesn’t change the fact that death is just…well death. A scary prospect but hardlly a punishing reality.
It is surely far better to make those convicted of odious crimes spend the rest of their lives denied the freedoms that we expect as citizens and forced to contemplate the consequences of their actions than to offer them an easy way out in death.