I think my wife, or soon-to-be wife, bought the Elvis Costello album Spike for me for Christmas. It was a good present, because I was a big Costello fan. Since that time, I haven’t actively sought out his music. The albums before, King of America and Blood & Chocolate, are probably my favorites of his. Spike was a disappointment following them. I find it an uneven album. In particular, the hit off the album, “Veronica” is quite weak, and is indicative of Costello’s worst habits of songwriting with its kaleidoscopic melody and impenetrable lyrics that require him explaining them to you.
I’ve always been a big fan of Costello’s overtly political songs. The best, off Punch the Clock, is probably “Shipbuilding.” I just learned that the music for the song was not written by Costello but rather Clive Langer. That’s interesting because I’ve always thought it one of his best melodies.
Spike included two political gems. The first is “Tramp the Dirt Down.” I can’t be objective about that song. I despise Margaret Thatcher as much as Costello does. But in an objective light, if it hadn’t been her to bring social Darwinism to England, it would have been someone else. Sometimes, countries go on tilt and decide that the problem is that the poor are doing too well and the rich just aren’t rich enough. So they “choose” a despot. Thatcher’s defense of Augusto Pinochet was no accident; despots love each other, even if they appear different in long established “democracies” than they do in fragile South American military dictatorships.
But the song that most impressed me on Spike was, “Let Him Dangle.” It is about the execution of Derek Bentley and more generally the “angry mob” basis of the death penalty. The story is well known in England, but not so much here in the United States. Bentley was a marginally mentally retarded 19-year-old man. After losing a number of jobs due to physical problems and unsatisfactory work, he was refused military service because he was judged “mentally substandard.” Not that I place much credence in these tests, he had a 77 IQ score.
Bentley and his 16-year-old friend Christopher Craig attempted a burglary of a warehouse. They were seen and the police arrived. It all resulted in a shootout, where Craig killed one office and wounded another. Bentley didn’t use any weapons against any of the police. But according to them, he said, “Let him have it, Chris.” Now this is interesting because if Bentley and Craig had been in a James Cagney movie, that might might have meant, “Shoot the copper!” But this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Bentley supposedly said this after the officer Craig wounded, Frederick Fairfax, said, “Hand over the gun, lad.” Regardless, this led to the wound, not the death. So the claim that Bentley was culpable in the later shot that killed Constable Sidney Miles requires a number of jumps in the causation chain.
Regardless of all this, by English law, Craig could not be given the death penalty because he was younger than 18. So they killed Bentley. But it wasn’t as though there was a huge cry from the people or even the political establishment that Bentley should hang. Over 200 MPs signed a petition in favor of Queen Elizabeth’s formal plea for clemency. But the then Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, 1st Earl of Kilmuir, refused it. He was politically ambitious and I suspect it is somewhat like John Kerry’s vote to authorize the Iraq War. And in the end, he wasn’t alone. I dare say the majority were for it. Then Prime Minister Winston Churchill seems to have been. I only mean to say that Bentley did have his defenders.
In To Encourage the Others, David Yallop argues that it wasn’t Craig’s bullet that killed the police officer. According to him, it was rather a stray bullet from another police officer. This doesn’t really matter, of course. The logic of killing Bentley went like this: he said something that caused Craig to shoot; this leads to more shooting by Craig; this leads to Craig killing Miles. If Yallop is right, the logic simply changes: Bentley said something that caused Craig to shoot; this leads to more shooting by Craig; this leads to the police accidentally shooting Miles. By the logic of the time, Bentley is still put to death.
Bentley has since been given a posthumous pardon, which means exactly nothing to him since he has been dead at the hands of the state for over 60 years. I question how important that symbolic gesture is to society. There is no death penalty in the United Kingdom today. But when it was abolished, there were still a third of the MPs who voted to keep it. There will always be people who want to kill for killing. And every time there is a publicized atrocity, the pitchfork crowd is out baying for blood. I think this is perfectly captured in Elvis Costello’s song:
Here in California, we have the death penalty, and it is still pretty popular. In 2012, we had the opportunity to repeal it, and 52% of my fellow state citizens said no. I don’t think it has anything to do with justice in any particular case. For people who support the death penalty, each execution is a kind symbolic act to suppress the outrage about murder. So when someone is executed, they are not executed for their crimes, but for all our crimes. I know people aren’t aware of this thinking. They claim it is about justice and some of them reference the Bible. But if it really is “an eye for an eye” then why aren’t all murders killed? Of course, the most twisted of people think all murders should be killed and quite a lot more. But such people clearly need help and the kind of pity they seem incapable of.