I was pleased to hear the news that Gerry Adams has been released from police custody before the 20.00h deadline imposed on the police. Without taking the side of either party in the long history of trouble in Northern Ireland it is surely possible to be horrified by the prospect of a return to the situation that prevailed in the 1970s. I think that (as with many things) there is a definite political division of opinion in our household, but complete agreement that prolonged questioning of Gerry Adams during a pre-(European) election campaign was likely to be incendiary. The news that he was being questioned for as much as 17 hours a day left me wondering about the value of any information obtained under these conditions.
Being personally acquainted with some of the potentially harmful effects of sleep deprivation I was interested to know what one’s rights were if detained in police custody for questioning. I can find plenty of information relating to one’s right to access a lawyer and to the total amount of time for which one can be held without charge, but nothing about the conditions under which an adult should be held. The EU documentation is clear about forbidding the use of torture and coercion, and states that sleep deprivation techniques are illegal. However it mentions nothing about short term sleep deprivation. We know that acute sleep deprivation can reduce alertness, attention and speed of thinking and may have further more complex and far reaching effects. People who are forced to sleep in strange places under stressful conditions (such as hospitals) rarely sleep well. I do not imagine that being held in a police cell is conducive to good, uninterrupted sleep.
I have little doubt that Gerry Adams knows his legal rights extremely well, but this episode does make me wonder about the many unfortunate people who may be questioned by the police in relation to various crimes. It is presumably fairly easy to obtain answers to questions from vulnerable and frightened people – answers that can then be used against them by clever barristers in court at a later date. Am I cynical about the legal process? No – certainly not in comparison to many other countries. Is it infallible? Obviously not. I do remain very cynical about the organisational structure of our police force, and at the systemic biases and discrimination within it, and the uneven treatment of citizens with whom it comes into contact.
This leads me into another prominent story this week – the ‘botched execution’ of an American death row inmate in Oklahoma. Various media offered grisly details about this, with a consensus that due to various factors the prisoner took 25 minutes to die, with a heart attack being given as the cause of death. (This made me wonder what they normally give as cause of death for an executed prisoner, since potassium stops the heart. Do they put ‘legal murder’?) Apparently, in the absence of the conventionally used drugs (because of a refusal of Europeans to supply them), this unfortunate man was given midazolam, followed by vecuronium, and then potassium. Venous access was a problem, so a groin vein was used, and the site covered to maintain decorum (again, a slightly bizarre idea in a situation when the execution of a man is a public spectacle). It is presumed, from the information available in the UK media, that there was extravasation of the drugs into the extravenous tissues, accounting for the failure to achieve the expected outcome.
Quite apart from the question about how the United States of America can support those states that continue to use legalised murder as a punishment, there is a further question about accountability for legalised torture (Guantanamo Bay is another debate altogether). I was somewhat surprised to discover that a majority of Americans, whilst supporting the death penalty, thought that execution should be quick, painless and humane, and were horrified by the reports from Oklahoma. I had rather expected the Republican, evangelical God-fearing citizens to relish the prolonged death of a convicted murderer – rather in the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ mentality that I has ascribed to them. It seems that I am wrong, and they feel that the state penitentiary services are accountable for this mess.
I remain completely mystified about a system that can suspend executions pending a full enquiry, but at the same time assure the media that the second man scheduled to die on the same day would be executed as soon as it could be arranged.
The final thread of this rather grim train of thought led me to episode two of ‘Generation War: Our Mothers, Our Fathers’ – an all German production that has apparently been much acclaimed in Germany. It is certainly well made and well acted, and is compelling viewing. Having watched two of the three episodes now I can see that it might still be quite difficult for an older generation of Germans to watch. It depicts the futility of war, and the slaughter of so many young men incredibly trivial ends, pressing on with unwinnable battles to satisfy the ego of the Fuhrer. What it doesn’t do, thus far, is examine what the ‘ordinary’ Berliner actually knows, thinks or believes (the story focuses on five friends in Berlin at the beginning of the war). We see disillusionment set in with those who end up at the front, but how they allowed it all to happen is not considered.
This seems very relevant at a time when UKIP are pushing hard to win the vote of ‘the ordinary man in the street’ (and with UKIP I think it is the man, no political correctness or gender equality for them), and the public school, Eton dominated cabinet is pushing myths of a better life for all. What are those who believe in a fairer, more tolerant society with a more equal distribution of wealth doing to provide a balance to these views?
I seem to always return to the well known saying: ‘All that it needs for the bad person to triumph is for the good person to say or do nothing.’