godslot re waite and evil myra

The other night I found myself arguing with one of the Beirut hostages about Myra Hindley. This was not a dream, but a curate's dinner party. The general sentiment among these good Christian people seemed to be that Hezbollah must be forgiven, Myra Hindley might be forgiven, but journalism was wholly unforgivable. Yet forgiving Myra Hindley seems hard, even for Christians.

The hostage's argument was that Myra Hindley, whom he visits, had been led into evil by Ian Brady. What she had done was terrible, but she had done it because she was in love with a madman, and she had since repented, very deeply. So it was wrong to keep her in prison to gratify the prejudices of Sun readers. And at first sight there is a lot to be said for this, especially when you consider that the man keeping her in prison in Michael Howard. The Home Secretary, I tell my children, is a man you can set your moral compass by: each time you have the chance to exercise power ver people as defenceless as prisoners are, ask yourself what Michael Howard would do and try the opposite.  

But there are regions towards the pole where compasses cannot help, and as the conversation continued, I found myself wondering whether Myra Hindley's case might not be such a moral extremity a place where even Michael Howard might be right. This has nothing to do with deterrence. What Myra Hindley did is not something most people can be deterred from, because it is not something they could be tempted into. Any honest parent must confess to the temptation of infanticide, however fleeting; but the urge to torture children to death is something very different.

Nor do I think she must be kept in to protect the public.  Without Brady then, she would not have killed. Without him now, she will not do so again. I don't think I would want her for a babysitter, but I believe this distaste is partially irrational. She may be as harmless as Rudolf Hess was. But I don't see what was so terrible about locking him up for the rest of his life, either.

Indeed, the analogy with Nazis is an interesting and fruitful one, because Hindley's defenders argue that she was only following the urgings of the man she loved. Why should we say that obeying orders is no excuse, while obeying a lover is?  Obeying orders is usually a much nobler and more dangerous occupation for a soldier than going along with your lover is and besides, the love which allows or impels you to torture small children is not what is usually meant by the term.

Yet soldiers, and especially airmen do do terrible things for which they are never punished. Modern weapons make atrocity almost inevitable. Young men dropping napalm on refugee camps do things to children as terrible as anything Myra Hindley managed. Bombing civilians would surely be recognised as a war crime if it weren't so terribly effective.

The difference may be patriotism, but that can't be the whole difference. The motives that actually make young men fight tend to overlap with some of those which actuated Hindley: loyalty, and a love of fun among them. Fighting men have almost always recognised the virtues of their opponents, because they share them. The cause is almost secondary. No, the difference, I found myself arguing, was innocence. The young men in aeroplanes have an innocence because they do not really know the effects of their bombs; still less do they come back again and again to watch the effect on different children, as Brady and Hindley did.

It's very difficult to imagine what it might be like to repent of their crimes: possibly more difficult than to imagine what it would be like to commit them. We are told that she has repented, and that we should forgive her, by a man who has forgiven his own torturers, and who says, convincingly, that he could not live without this forgiveness. But instinctively, even in a dinner party full of Christians for whom "Sun reader" was a term of moral opprobrium, the majority were clearly in favour of locking her away for the rest of her life. Of course it is unfair that she should have come to stand as the symbol of evil incarnate. But it does not seem to me desperately unChristian to ask her to bear this, and to play the role gracefully. If that means spending the rest of her life in prison, as a penance, that at least offers some meaning to her suffering: in an extraordinary sense, by being unjustly imprisoned she is justly paying her debt to society.

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