From amnesties for the IRA to calls for the Woolwich murderers to be lynched, crime and punishment is now a politicised mess
© Guy Corbishley/Demotix/Corbis
BNP supporters with mock gallows gather outside the Old Bailey in London on 26 February during sentencing of the killers of Lee Rigby.
There is one law for their terrorists and another for ours. "Theirs" kill a soldier in Woolwich and get slammed up for life
. They get a verbal lynching from the red-tops, with Rot in Jail headlines and screams the rope would be too good for them, the filth and scum. "Our" terrorists get royal pardons and "letters of assurance"
, even if, as may be the case, they slaughter four soldiers and eight horses in cold blood in Hyde Park. That is how it must seem to many people.
Suppose the Woolwich murderers of Lee Rigby had not pranced about the street and waited to be arrested. Suppose they had gone on the run in the souks of Waziristan or Somalia. Suppose, years later, a future Tony Blair was desperate to "feel the hand of history
" on his shoulder and get out of whatever Muslim country he had just invaded. Suppose he offered a "side deal" to pardon 200 Islamist terrorists wanted for killing British soldiers. The killings were, he might claim, all in time of war and a deal would serve a lasting peace.
That is the gist of the excuse given yesterday by Blair apologists and the former Ulster secretary Peter Hain
for the de facto amnesty to IRA killers under the 1998 Good Friday agreement. It was meant to "lock in the peace" and "achieve closure on the horror and the violence". Would Hain say the same of today's terrorists, who justify their deeds as revenge for Britain's occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan? Would he barter it for al-Qaida calling off its cells that might, even now, be plotting revenge on British drone operators who sit in Lincolnshire bunkers killing Islamist foreigners without any legal or judicial process?
Nothing separates the progressive mind from the conservative as much as the handling of crime and punishment. It is the one realm of public policy that British liberals have not come near to conquering. As a result it has become not so much a moral maze as a moral morass, awash in double standards, racist subplots and an everlasting dread of popular backlash.
The tabloids were this week howling for a return of the gallows. This year sees the 50th anniversary of Britain's last hanging, of two murderers in Manchester's Strangeways prison. Backbench attempts to bring back capital punishment were rejected by House of Commons majorities in 1988, 1990 and 1994. A current bid to raise 100,000 signatures to a parliamentary e-petition may succeed. But there is little chance of it stirring anything more than a parliamentary debate.