Friday, 22 June 2012

Liam Holden: slow steps towards civilisation

My father was anything but a radical lefty. In his life, most of which was spent away from Britain, he took part in only one election, in 1945, when he voted for the Conservatives or more precisely, for Winston Churchill.

Nevertheless, he held views that most conservatives would have found unorthodox. In particular, he loathed the death penalty. I think he was as moved as anyone by arguments against the cold-blooded taking of life, or against the facile equation between two lives embodied in the principle that someone who kills another deserves to die himself. But the argument that clinched it for him was judicial fallibility.

‘Death is the only sentence you can do nothing to correct,’ he would say. ‘Get it wrong and you can’t undo it.’

We can debate all the other arguments but that one does indeed seem unanswerable. Since you can never even begin to make amends to a dead man, then quite apart from any moral consideration, the only judicial system that can use the death penalty must be one that guarantees never to make an error.

So it was fascinating to read about the case of Liam Holden in the Guardian. He was the last man condemned to hang in the United Kingdom, for the terrorist murder of a soldier in the troubles in Northern Ireland. Back in 1973 his sentence was commuted, so instead he served eighteen years in gaol. Now his conviction has been overturned. Those years can never be given back to him, but at least he’s alive. As his lawyer puts it, the family are grateful ‘that they are dealing with a quashed conviction and not a posthumous pardon.’

My father would have been pleased about that, but he might also have had a comment to make about the grounds for the successful appeal.

Soon after the Second World War, having been recently demobbed, he worked with the British occupation administration in Germany. At dinner one evening with compatriots who were complaining about Nazi atrocities, my father mildly pointed out that the British too had not been above ‘taking a pair of scissors’ to captives who were suspected of having useful information they were refusing to divulge.

Soon after that unfortunate comment, he found himself being energetically thrown, fully clothed, into the hotel swimming pool. His dinner companions’ had just underlined the inanity of the statement that the truth never hurts. Only the truth has the capacity to hurt.

Liam Holden’s conviction was overturned because, among other things, he was held and interrogated illegally by the British Army in Northern Ireland. In particular, he was subjected to what we now call ‘waterboarding’. As the Guardian points out, Holden ‘loathes the term waterboarding.’ In his view, ‘It wasn't waterboarding. It was torture.’

Curious way to fight for freedom

In the West, we like to present ourselves as the moral superiors of those, in particular Moslem fundamentalists, whom we fight in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s interesting to find that our habitual use of torture gores back a long way. We might do well to learn a little humility.

Doing away with torture and the death penalty would be the kind of advances my father would probably have classified, using one of his favourite terms, as ‘civilised values’.

Nearly 30 years after his death, it’s good to see civilisation taking another small step towards adopting some of them.


Anonymous said...

I'll never say again that being a Tory and a thinking man is a paradox.


David Beeson said...

Some Conservatives are quite civilised. They don't tend to get too close to the levers of power though. And my father was an unusual kind of Conservative: during the Vietnam war he became an enthusiastic supporter of the North and the Vietcong.