ALEX KANE: FOR my generation Ian Brady is as much a part of the collective memory as are the Beatles, the Stones, Twiggy, mini-skirts, Vietnam protests and the moon landing. The mugshot of him issued shortly after his arrest in October 1965 is like the bad guy equivalent of the Mona Lisa and you find yourself transfixed by that stare and by the seeming inability of anyone to explain who he is or what he is.
There’s hardly a week goes by when there isn’t some reference to him or a reminder of what he and Myra Hindley did to Pauline Reade, John Kilbride, Lesley Ann Downey, Edward Evans and Keith Bennett.
The abolition of the death penalty in 1965, a matter of months before Brady and Hindley were arrested and charged, meant that they were sentenced to life imprisonment rather than execution: and almost every debate about the return of the death penalty cites those events of almost 50 years ago.
This may seem an odd admission for an avowed right-winger, but I don’t support the death penalty. Yes, some people do remarkably bad things, but I still think we should make provision for the possibility of personal responsibility and redemption. That doesn’t mean short sentences and early releases.
The punishment for ending someone’s life – be it accidental or deliberate – should always be severe and should always serve as a warning to others.
Some people drink and drive and end up being responsible for the death of others. Some people take drugs and end up killing someone. Some people just act in a very stupid, reckless way and cause a death. Some people, leading lives of absolute fear and misery, resort to killing because they can see no other means of escape.
Some people get caught up in particular circumstances which lead them to do very bad things for what they believe are the right reasons.
That happens in conflict zones around the world (including Northern Ireland, of course) when people believe themselves to be fighting against oppression or defending a legitimate cause.
Some kill because they are clearly, certifiably mentally unstable, unable to tell the difference between right and wrong actions.
In other words there are very many occasions when the taking of a life is deemed not to merit the death penalty: or when the degrees of punishment or imprisonment handed down can vary so much.
So it really is far too simple to say that a return of the death penalty is some sort of answer.
The murder rate in the United Kingdom is actually quite low (one of the reasons why instances of it still attract so much publicity) and many of those instances are covered by the Homicide Act 1957 (and subsequent amendments), which, in effect, reduces the charges from deliberate acts of murder to lesser charges involving diminished responsibility or some form of provocation.
And I don’t think there is a serious lobby arguing that death caused by drink-driving or drug abuse should be punished by execution.
There are a couple of very specific instances when a death penalty does retain an obvious attraction. Surely war criminals, those people who deploy wide-scale slaughter as a tactic of revenge or suppression should be executed when found guilty? I take a slightly different view.
I think they should be imprisoned and kept in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives, sending a signal that they are neither invincible nor glamorous. In some ways killing them is the easy way out.
Permanent confinement – and the accompanying sense of humiliation and public defeat – strikes me as a more effective punishment.
There are people across the United Kingdom who believe that the death penalty should still apply to terrorists, particularly the IRA. But that leads to enormous problems.
What about the rogue police officer or soldier? What about the intelligence services who have infiltrated terrorist groups and make the decision to allow a bomb or murder to go ahead rather than risk a cover being blown?
What about the lessons of history, which tend to indicate that executing convicted terrorists aids rather than hinders their cause?
The world is not black and white. Circumstances are not black and white. Proving that someone is deserving of a state-sanctioned death penalty is not black and white, either, because we already have so many circumstances in which causing death – either deliberately or accidentally – is explained, sometimes even ‘justified’ by extenuating circumstances or by the fact that the person accused of the death is mentally unstable.
So what do we do with someone like Ian Brady? The murder of children is always particularly unsettling, although we live in a country in which abortion is legal and carried out on a truly monumental scale.
The picture of the tousled-haired, bespectacled Keith Bennett (which we have seen again so often this week) has haunted me since I first saw it almost 30 years ago: a grim reminder of a 12-year-old who, along with four others, was tortured and murdered.
My view of Brady (and it is only personal, because I am not a psychiatrist) is that he isn’t, in the traditional sense of the term, insane. I think he is one of the very few real examples of genuine evil thrown up in every generation.
In the 50-odd years since his imprisonment he has played his cards with great skill: making sure that he is never forgotten. Let’s not forget, either, that he only admitted the murders in 1987! Even the latest story about the letter to be opened after his death suggests he knows exactly what he is doing.
The shining counterpoint to Brady is, of course, Winnie Johnson, Keith Bennett’s mum: who died earlier this week, having devoted the last 50 years to keeping his memory alive and trying to find his body. I doubt if we would still remember him or know of her had Brady been executed.
There’s a part of me really hopes that there is a Heaven and that Winnie and Keith have been reunited.
There are, in fact, no reasons at all for keeping Brady alive. Yet, oddly enough, that in itself is a reason for doing so.
He is a freak of nature and should always be remembered as such. Dispatching him in 1966 would have served no purpose.
As most of you know I am an atheist, yet I can’t help hoping that there is some form of eternal Hell in which Ian Brady and others will end up.