We should allow Huntley to kill himself

By Minette Marrin (THE TIMES, 10/09/06):

When Wolfgang Priklopil realised that the pretty girl he had kept captive for eight years had grown up and escaped, he threw himself under a train in Vienna. The wheels cut off his head. Difficult though it is to understand why a man should do something so terrible to a child, it is not at all difficult to understand why he should have done something so terrible to himself. It was the only thing to do.

From any point of view, he had no future. The girl was gone and the perverted obsessional world that he had constructed around her was destroyed. His private guilt, if he was capable of feeling any, and his public shame would never leave him; they would pursue him always, like the Furies. He could never show his face again, just as he had hidden hers. His time in prison would be long and terrifying; it would be a choice between solitary confinement and the brutality of fellow prisoners, who are merciless to child abusers.

All that was left for him was fear, loathing and enduring punishment. Even so, that may not be the explanation for his death; it’s impossible to imagine in any detail what his motives were. Perhaps in some sense he loved the girl and could not live without her. Perhaps he was trying, in a final act of cruelty, to punish her by his suicide, as he had often threatened.

What is striking, in all the prurient deluge of news and comment about the ordeal of Natashcha Kampusch, is that nobody has anything much to say about the suicide of Priklopil. It passed almost unnoticed. Usually in such cases there are clamorous outbursts on all sides, from the vindictive to the merciful, and all denouncing suicide. Some claim angrily that the criminal has cheated justice and taken the coward’s way out; others say that society has cheated the criminal of any hope of redemption. Others express horror at any suicide. Yet in this case the usual voices have been silent. There seems to be a tacit acceptance. It is as if people feel that it was for the best, or for the least worst.

It is striking, by contrast, how differently people in this country have reacted to the attempted suicide last week of Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer. Huntley is a man who is every bit as mad or bad as Priklopil. He captured not one but two girls and then sexually abused and killed them. Like Priklopil he tried to kill himself, with an overdose last Monday night in his cell at Wakefield jail; he failed because the Prison Service belatedly managed to rush him to hospital where his stomach was pumped out. He has now gone back to jail where he faces at least 40 years inside. Not surprisingly, he has tried to kill himself before.

Yet the main public response, oddly enough, has been anger at the Prison Service for failing to stop him. The Home Office is profoundly embarrassed and has said that it will review the way Huntley is supervised. This is all the more ludicrous since it is only eight weeks since the Home Office published a previous review of Huntley’s first suicide attempt in June 2003.

The conclusion of that report was that there were “serious systems failures” and “corporate” failure at Woodhill prison where he was incarcerated at the time. The report also emphasised that Huntley was highly likely to try to top himself again or, in statespeak, presents an “ongoing significant risk of self-harm”. Paul Goggins, the junior Home Office minister of the day stated — how awkward it now sounds — that “the safe custody of Mr Huntley is an absolute priority for the Prison Service”.

But why? I don’t share the indignation of the prison reformers who think that the screws should have kept a closer watch on Huntley. I agree that the Prison Service should be better run and that Huntley’s two suicide attempts are symptoms of the general chaos that besets it. I also agree that for justice and humanity Huntley should be kept safe from the vindictiveness of other inmates and from any bullying by prison officers. But I don’t see why, in this particular case, it is necessary to take time and trouble round the clock to protect him from himself. I do not see why suicide is such an unacceptable end for such a man.

In some societies it was considered merciful to give a man the choice of suicide. I don’t know how common it was but all theatregoers and novel readers are familiar with the scene where the disgraced soldier is given a revolver and a bottle of whisky by his brother officers and left alone in the library to do the decent thing. It was considered less terrible for him, and for them, and spared them the ugly necessity of having him tried, humiliated and executed.

In some cases suicide is the decent thing, in effect if not always in intention. There are crimes that are unforgivable. Huntley’s, like Priklopil’s, was one. There are crimes to which the idea of rehabilitation or of paying one’s debt to society is quite irrelevant. The cases of Fred West and Harold Shipman are obvious examples. It hardly matters whether one considers them responsible for their behaviour or not. If they are not, they cannot be rehabilitated, and if they are, that only makes their crimes more hideous.

I don’t advocate capital punishment for them — I am against it because I believe it is so bad for those who administer it and for a society that permits cold-blooded administrative murder. But I do suggest that for them death is a consummation devoutly to be desired, if chosen freely. It would also bring a sense of an ending to all those around the victims.

There is also the question of priorities. Questions of money always undermine a moral argument, I know, but I cannot understand why Huntley’s suicide watch should be an expensive “absolute priority”. There are all kinds of people in jail — those facing their first night behind bars, those on remand, the mentally ill who may have committed quite minor crimes and above all the very young — who are known to be at an extremely high risk of killing themselves. Should Huntley have priority over any of them? Most certainly not.

It would be both right and merciful to turn a blind eye to Huntley’s peephole at the graveyard hour and turn time and money instead to the needs of prisoners who have a chance of redemption. Whatever his motives, and whatever ours, let Huntley do the decent thing.