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Here Be Dragons

Here's Why the Idea of Reinstating the Death Penalty in Europe Is Utterly Moronic

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Marine Le Pen – leader of France's far-right Front National – has promised a national referendum of the death penalty if she's elected President in 2017.

Marine Le Pen, leader of Front National. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Like any major attack, the horror inflicted on Charlie Hebdo this week has stirred up a whirlwind of debate about how Western liberal society should respond to these kinds of events. A big chunk of that argument is based around the idea that we should be more Western and less liberal, with some prominent figures calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in Europe.

There were the inevitable hard-right attacks on multiculturalism. Channel 4 News attempted to add a bit of "edge" to their coverage by bringing on Nigel Farage, who is about as edgy as a cue ball. It's hard to get inside the mind of the TV news producer who thought Farage was a good person to talk to in the wake of a massive European tragedy, but on he went and wittered away about immigrants.


Then, people started begging the government to invade their privacy. The Sun, whose sister paper was shut down for spying on people's private communications, mocked "liberals" who "still fret over the perceived assault on civil liberties of spooks analysing e-mails". Meanwhile, the Telegraph's Dan Hodges tied a white flag to his spine and waved it over his head in surrender: "If one way of stopping obscenities like today is providing the security services a bit more access to our e-mails, we must give it to them. If it means Internet providers handing over their records, the records must be handed over."

As fun as it would be to see Theresa May's reaction to my porn collection, I'm pretty sure terrorists can find alternatives to Facebook and Gmail.

Marine Le Pen's reaction matters more than most, though. The increasingly popular leader of France's far-right Front National has promised a national referendum on the death penalty if she's elected president in 2017, and she's quoted in Newsweek saying it "should exist in our legal arsenal". She'd probably never get it through – protection from the death penalty is in the French constitution now and would violate god knows how many treaties – but, like the attack itself, it won't hurt her election chances.

I – like most – have strong views on the death penalty. Partly, it's because a country singer with the same name as me wrote a really creepy song about being fried in an electric chair that makes Johnny Cash's "Hurt" sound like "Mr Blue Skies": "Suddenly, I'm paralyzed / This must be the end / My body jerks and trembles / And they turn it on again." Mostly, though, it's because nothing about the death penalty has ever made any kind of sense.


What happens if someone is wrongly convicted? Going to prison for a murder when you're innocent is terrible, but at some point there's a chance you might be able to get out and live the rest of your life. You can't live the rest of your life if you've been executed.

As Ian Hislop pointed out a while ago, false convictions aren't exactly rare, and "we would have killed those people". Research published last year estimated that around 4.1 percent of inmates on death row in the US should have been exonerated. That doesn't sound a lot, but, as Scientific American pointed out, over the years it adds up to 340 people.

What, exactly, are executions supposed to achieve?

You can't execute a suicide bomber. Death isn't a big problem for the kind of fanatics willing to die for a cause. Even if you just look at ordinary crime, there's no real reason to think that execution would deter people. As Amnesty put it, "The threat of execution at some future date is unlikely to enter the minds of those acting under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, those who are in the grip of fear or rage, those who are panicking while committing another crime (such as a robbery), or those who suffer from mental illness or mental retardation and do not fully understand the gravity of their crime." They note that murder rates are considerably higher in those American states that still have the death penalty.

The research that exists doesn't support it, either. It's true that you can find papers that claim to show a deterrent effect – one infamous paper from the 1970s claimed that each execution in the US prevents eight homicides. Trouble is, the results don't survive even the slightest bit of scrutiny. Several studies misuse basic statistics, take weird approaches (one obsesses about the size of the Republican vote), or fail to deal with the fact that both executions and homicides fall in the period they cover.


The only real reason to execute people is retaliation – an eye for an eye. What you make of that really comes down to your own set of morals, but I thought we'd moved past biblical retribution. France hasn't beheaded anyone since Hamida Djandoubi in 1977; Britain and other European countries for a lot longer. We leave that kind of savagery to the likes of Islamic State. It's hard to imagine why, having seen where their idea of morality leads, we'd want to imitate it.


More coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

The Awkward Truths About Our Fetish For 'Free Speech'

Live Updates From Paris

Paris Gun Attack: Dispatch One