In my younger, more radical days (hang on – at 26, can I really make the claim that I’m all grown up and “sensible” now? Jury still out…) I was much more vocal, and aggressively so, in my opposition to capital punishment. Cases like this one, though utterly horrific had me arguing in no uncertain terms that capital punishment was wrong, that no matter how bad the crime, state execution was simply not a valid means of punishing a criminal for their action.

Don’t get me wrong – I still don’t think it is right. Killing is wrong (though I can make a case for Margo’s End of Life Assistance Bill being okay, but that’s another debate). Whether it is a drug lord slaying a rival gang leader, a policeman shooting dead a potential terrorist or the state executing a prisoner guilty of what our American cousins would call first degree murder – killing is wrong. You don’t need a religious or theological position to agree with that – basic morality will do.

When I was in my early teens I vividly remember the Oklahoma City bombing, the subsequent trial of Timothy McVeigh and the morbid fascination I had with the American legal system which was inevitably and without any shadow of a doubt going to pass a death sentence on the perpetrator. I vaguely recall news reports in the week up to his execution stating the exact time that he was due to be killed. I remember that it was supposed to be held on 16th May (its my birthday – hence remembering precisely) but that it was delayed for a month (until 11 June – the day before my brother’s birthday!). Anyway, I took such an interest in the case that I knew exactly what time the execution would be – and watched news reports confirming his death. Even though I knew McVeigh had killed 168 people I did not believe that his death was justified, nor that the state had a right to end his life. The fact that he had been wrong in the first place didn’t matter – killing is wrong.

There are 4 broad arguments against the state being allowed to kill: morality (killing is wrong), lack of ability to be a deterrent (evidence suggests so), lack of certainty surrounding guilt of convicted and monetary factors (total costs of execution and appeals process exceed cost of life imprisonment without parole in the US). But for me, the latter three are secondary considerations to the first – that killing is wrong, whether state sanctioned or otherwise.

How many times have I used the phrase “killing is wrong” thus far? I count 6 (and a seventh if you count the question in the previous sentence). Do you get the feeling I’m trying to convince you of something… or myself? Because here’s a kick in the balls: I’m not convinced killing is always wrong.

Let me qualify that statement. I’ve always been more of a utilitarian than a consequentialist (and, indeed, hold J.S. Mill as one of my ideological standard-bearers) but I do have a Masters in Terrorism and International Relations, so here’s a flip side for you. If you could save 20 people from certain death (okay, I know death is certain – I mean a premature death via a terrorist attack) by killing one person you know is planning to attack, would that killing be wrong? If the state had known McVeigh was going to bomb Oklahoma City and shot him dead on the way – and in the process saving 168 lives – would that be justified? I think you could make a case for it (and I can hear the civil liberties types queueing up to whack me as I write this).

I’d still argue that killing is wrong – and you won’t get me to say otherwise – but I think you can justify this type of action. Look, I’m not saying its right. And I’m not saying we should give police new powers in this field, nor that security trumps civil liberties (despite what some might argue!) just that in some cases – perhaps when we can be almost sure that acting will avoid the widespread loss of life – that state sponsored killing could, perhaps, be justified. There, I’ve said it.  But this is a very grey area – things are not black and white here.

Now, I suspect there will be some responses pointing out my objections to capital punishment – we’ll never be 100% sure, costs involved, deterrence and, of course, that killing is wrong – and say that I’m being inconsistent, nay, a hypocrite! I see your point. But I do think I can hold both positions consistently – that killing someone to avoid large-scale loss of life can be justified but that killing them after the due process of law has been followed is wrong. Here’s how. In the former case, the death of suspect/potential convict serves a purpose that is directly related to the physical well-being of society (that is, the avoidance of terrorist incident and/or multiple fatalities). The latter is simply vengeance – an eye for an eye, the state attempting to “even the score” with the criminal. This will not bring back those whom they have killed – but in the former case it stops them from being killed in the first place.

I know its not a perfect argument. And of course there are instances where action will prove ill-considered and wrong. And, inevitably, those concerned with the human rights of those who could not give a flying **** about the human rights of those they intend to kill will scream bloody murder. And yes, that is what it is. But I’m not sure that we can’t – sometimes – look beyond that.

I know that’s controversial, particularly in today’s polarised world. I know what I’m saying condones what is some cases (Israel particularly) would be described as “state-sponsored terrorism”. And I know – and I believe – that killing is wrong. I just think – sometimes – it can be justified.