If the morality of a society is indicated by the way it treats its criminals, the moral inconsistency of the British government is surely established by the case of the so called ‘IS Beatles’. The men are accused of horrific crimes, and few dispute that they are guilty except the men themselves. It is an understandable reaction to want these men to face the same fate they inflicted on their victims, but the implications of this could set the country on a path from which it would be all too easy to descend into a deep moral abyss.
Regardless of the horrendous nature of their crimes, the UK’s handling of the cases of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, sets two very dangerous precedents: stripping them of citizenship, and refusing to demand assurances that they will not receive the death penalty.
Stripping the men of their citizenship has done two main things in this case. First, it’s deemed Alexanda Kotey stateless; an act which, for good reason, is illegal under international law. Second, it’s created a situation in which the UK can absolve itself of responsibility for these men. Although it must remain an important consideration even in the face of their apparent lack of the same, this is not simply about Kotey and Elsheikh’s human rights. The UK’s absolution of its responsibility is chiefly that of the wider moral implications of its own role in their radicalisation. Radicalisation is not simply about the actions of the state, or the so-called ‘West’; there are many other causes besides, including one’s own personal responsibility, but it is a hugely important factor. By stripping Kotey and Elsheikh of their citizenship, the government is effectively denying any responsibility, whether that be dangerous foreign policy, inadequate social provision, or rampant individualism. The government has dropped all pretence of morality, but refused to give up the high-ground.
The stripping of Kotey and Elsheikh’s citizenship makes it easier for the UK home secretary, Sajid Javid, to take the “secret and unilateral” decision not to demand assurances that the pair will not receive the death penalty. Indeed, this is not simply a beneficial side-effect of the decision, but the primary motivation behind it in the first place, a fact betrayed by the government’s minister for security and economic crime, Ben Wallace. Regardless of whether this is a change in policy, this shows inconsistency in the UK’s long held opposition to the death penalty.
The impracticality of the death penalty is based on two things. First, that it does not prevent crime. This is particularly true of crimes committed in the service of an ideology, poisonous or otherwise, because the human brain is hard wired to respond to the emotion of ideology rather than the cold, hard facts of legality. Second, that innocent lives are taken because the judicial system is imperfect. This becomes more obvious the more you think about it because people are imperfect. Institutions and systems are set up by imperfect people to work in an imperfect world. Perhaps, you may say, it is the best we have, and that may be true. The fact remains however, that an imperfect judicial system set up and run by imperfect people can only apply an imperfect law imperfectly. That is hardly a strong enough foundation for the taking of life as punishment.
The government has claimed that whilst there is no change in its stance regarding the death penalty, there may from time to time be exceptions to the rule, but the practical argument against the death penalty stands or falls on its consistent application. To maintain that you are against the death penalty, there can be no exceptions. A system that applies the law inconsistently and unfairly, is a dangerous and immoral system.