Pity poor Mrs Hitchens when her lads were bolshy teens!
Peter Hitchens is the younger brother of the more successful Christopher and unsurprisingly enough they mostly hate each other. Peter (a former Trotskyist) lurks crankily on the hard right, but in true Hitchens style his real role is that of Contrarian. (He opposed the Iraq invasion while lefty Chris supported it.)
Peter’s latest post on his entertaining blog has a bash at hanging. Naturally, he’s pro, and funnily enough he’s trying to fight off precisely the conservative argument against capital punishment that stirred up such a hornet’s nest here. He takes the line that a couple of TofE’s commenters took: that opposing the death penalty on the grounds that irreversible fatal penalties cannot be justified in a fallible system is hypocritical, since we are quite willing to accept the risk of fatalities to innocents in other areas (he brings up the Iraq war and other things, but could equally have mentioned road traffic safety etc).
This is of course a nonsense argument, first because it is not a zero sum game (life imprisonment offers an alternative), and second because in each area of public life – be it road traffic, war or criminal justice – you must attempt to have the least worst possible arrangement, and unavoidable flaws in one do not excuse you from having similar flaws in another if they are easily escaped.
The fact that most of Hitchens’s commenters – themselves right-wing Daily Mail readers – patiently take him apart on the issue illustrates the power of this conservative argument for abolition.
Capital punishment is a knee-jerk issue that traditionally divides two sets of people who can’t stand each other: the it’s-all-society’s-fault bleeding hearts; versus the hangers and floggers. Because of this, it’s an emotionally difficult one to let go, which is why pro-hangers will take a leaf out of the leftist book and scattergun everything they can think of at the faillibility argument. In fact, the argument is often not particularly emphasised by true bleeding hearts because it is about limiting the power of the state over the individual.
There are two types of pro-hanging conservatives: those who haven’t encountered the fallibility argument; and those who haven’t thought about it for long enough.