Justice like this only bloodies the relatives' hands

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The Independent Online
Towards the end of the trial of Timothy McVeigh, the man convicted of the Oklahoma bombing, the judge invited relatives of the victims into court to say whether he should face the death penalty. What followed was truly shocking, in two senses: the relatives spoke harrowingly about losing husbands, wives and children in the terrorist attack on a government building, but some of them offered graphic accounts of what they would like done to McVeigh.

What sticks in my mind is the man who said he would like to have McVeigh's legs amputated at the knee, then watch him die in agony as bamboo shoots grew up into the stumps. I don't know where he got this macabre notion from - it sounds suspiciously like the atrocities attributed to the Vietcong in movies like The Deer Hunter - but the word for what he was advocating is torture.

It's not surprising that relatives of people who have been blown up or beaten to death should indulge fantasies of revenge, much as I deplore it. But they are of all people least qualified to make impartial judgments about who committed the crime or what type of punishment it merits, which is why the principle of the state taking over these roles is vitally important. This is precisely what does not happen under Islamic law, in which the victim's closest relative is literally given power of life and death over the accused - with the squalid consequences we have seen in the case of the British nurses accused of murder in Saudi Arabia.

The case against Lucille McLauchlan and Deborah Parry consists solely of confessions extracted under duress, to put it politely. Yet the victim's brother, Frank Gilford, is apparently demanding blood money of pounds 750,000 in return for waiving his "right" to have them beheaded. Gilford seems to have persuaded himself that he is behaving altruistically by offering to donate $500,000 to a hospital in Australia. Yet what he is really doing is seizing an opportunity rarely afforded to Westerners, thank God, which is to act out his fantasies of retribution.

TO condemn what has happened to the two nurses is not, as some Muslims have argued this week, anti-Islamic. It is a rejection of primitive systems of justice which place undue weight on revenge, of which the Bible is as guilty as sharia law. The passage in the Koran calling for thieves to have their hands cut off is similar to those verses of Exodus which demand "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand". But in the West, where the Christian church has lost much of its moral force, the unfairness and immorality of such rough justice has been recognised.

Sometimes, when I look at what is happening in the United States - Timothy McVeigh's trial or the practice in some states of slowly frying convicted felons in the electric chair - I fear that we are about to revert to barbarism. But I do not believe that, just because the West's own record is imperfect, we should remain silent about scandalous abuses of human rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Even if the authorities there have religious texts to support them, their treatment of the two British nurses - and of numerous Third World nationals who have already suffered at the hands of Saudi justice this year - falls lamentably short of the standards of an impartial judicial system. And, as Frank Gilford's complicity in this shameful episode reveals, the whole business tells us as much about the dark side of human nature as it does about Islam.

AS WELL as its enthusiastic endorsement of corporal and capital punishment, the Bible contains some fierce rules about diet. Why it should be all right to eat bald locusts, but not hare or pig, has never been clear to me - and the question has stimulated debates among theologians and anthropologists. The most plausible explanation is that the Abominations of Leviticus, as they are known, embody hygiene rules for nomadic tribes who would have encountered unfamiliar sources of food on a regular basis.

I've always thought, however, that these passages in the Bible address a deeper anxiety. What matters is not so much what the rules say but that they exist at all; think of the alacrity with which people in secular cultures embrace diet gurus such as Rosemary Conley. Our problems with food are legion, from too little to too much, from which animals to eat to whether to eat flesh at all - an issue addressed in two new reports which suggest we should cut down on red meat so as to avoid cancer.

The trouble with the recommendations is their assumption that human beings are remotely rational about their diets: after hearing about the latest reports, I went straight out to dinner and ate calves' liver and kidneys. The epidemic of obesity currently affecting Britain and the US is evidence of a population out of touch with its bodily requirements, so that whole generations have grown to adulthood without ever experiencing pangs of hunger. People who are used to grazing their way through the day, eating crisps and hamburgers regardless of whether their stomachs feel empty, are not going to take health warnings seriously. It's all too obvious that rules about food, whether they come from the Bible or the Hip and Thigh Diet, are made to be broken.

THIS IS one of the reasons I'm wary of blaming the outbreak of anorexia among teenage girls on pictures of waif-like models. I'm sure the origins of eating disorders are much more complex, which is not to say that I wouldn't like to see a wider range of body shapes represented in glossy magazines and movies. So I was delighted, when I went to the premiere of Dancehall Queen at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton last week, to discover a film whose star, Audrey Reid, is a brilliant dancer with a normal, not- quite-perfect body.

At the party before the screening, Mick Jones, who used to be in The Clash and has worked with the movie's director Don Letts, told me it was a women's film. I was unconvinced, having heard it described as a Jamaican version of Flashdance, but now I think he's right. Dancehall Queen has flaws but it celebrates female sexuality, unlike the pallid Showgirls, and the women in the film very obviously enjoy themselves. It's on limited release, so I hope you get a chance to see it.