Capital Punishment

hanging-ropeMy reflections continue on this theme of human evil and goodness, and everything in between. I come to the subject to the way the law in some countries deals with a criminal considered as to be so evil as to be beyond redemption – they kill that person. In modern times, human ingenuity devised methods thought to reduce physical suffering to the minimum: Pierrepoint’s long-drop hanging in England, the guillotine, America’s lethal injection and so many others. It is a dreadful subject to discuss, but so relevant to our reflection on human nature.

Dostoevsky offered his perspective in his book The Idiot.

Prince Myshkin: “Yes—I saw an execution in France—at Lyons. Schneider took me over with him to see it.”

Servant: “What, did they hang the fellow?”

Prince Myshkin: “No, they cut off people’s heads in France.”

Servant: “What did the fellow do?—yell?”

Prince Myshkin: “Oh no—it’s the work of an instant. They put a man inside a frame and a sort of broad knife falls by machinery —they call the thing a guillotine-it falls with fearful force and weight-the head springs off so quickly that you can’t wink your eye in between. But all the preparations are so dreadful. When they announce the sentence, you know, and prepare the criminal and tie his hands, and cart him off to the scaffold—that’s the fearful part of the business. The people all crowd round—even women— though they don’t at all approve of omen looking on. And I may tell you—believe it or not, as you like—that when that man stepped upon the scaffold he CRIED, he did indeed,—he was as white as a bit of paper. Isn’t it a dreadful idea that he should have cried —cried! Whoever heard of a grown man crying from fear—not a child, but a man who never had cried before—a grown man of forty-five years. Imagine what must have been going on in that man’s mind at such a moment; what dreadful convulsions his whole spirit must have endured; it is an outrage on the soul that’s what it is. Because it is said ‘thou shalt not kill,’ is he to be killed because he murdered some one else? No, it is not right, it’s an impossible theory. I assure you, I saw the sight a month ago and it’s dancing before my eyes to this moment. I dream of it, often.”

Servant: “Well, at all events it is a good thing that there’s no pain when the poor fellow’s head flies off”

Prince Myshkin: “Do you know, though,” cried the prince warmly, “you made that remark now, and everyone says the same thing, and the machine is designed with the purpose of avoiding pain, this guillotine I mean; but a thought came into my head then: what if it be a bad plan after all? You may laugh at my idea, perhaps—but I could not help its occurring to me all the same. Now with the rack and tortures and so on—you suffer terrible pain of course; but then your torture is bodily pain only (although no doubt you have plenty of that) until you die. But HERE I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all — but the certain knowledge that in an hour,—then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now — this very INSTANT—your soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man — and that this is certain, CERTAIN! That’s the point—the certainty of it. Just that instant when you place your head on the block and hear the iron grate over your head—then—that quarter of a second is the most awful of all.

This is not my own fantastical opinion—many people have thought the same; but I feel it so deeply that I’ll tell you what I think. I believe that to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime. A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed by a criminal. The man who is attacked by robbers at night, in a dark wood, or anywhere, undoubtedly hopes and hopes that he may yet escape until the very moment of his death. There are plenty of instances of a man running away, or imploring for mercy—at all events hoping on in some degree—even after his throat was cut. But in the case of an execution, that last hope—having which it is so immeasurably less dreadful to die,—is taken away from the wretch and CERTAINTY substituted in its place! There is his sentence, and with it that terrible certainty that he cannot possibly escape death—which, I consider, must be the most dreadful anguish in the world. You may place a soldier before a cannon’s mouth in battle, and fire upon him—and he will still hope. But read to that same soldier his death-sentence, and he will either go mad or burst into tears. Who dares to say that any man can suffer this without going mad? No, no! it is an abuse, a shame, it is unnecessary — why should such a thing exist? Doubtless there may be men who have been sentenced, who have suffered this mental anguish for a while and then have been reprieved; perhaps such men may have been able to relate their feelings afterwards. Our Lord Christ spoke of this anguish and dread. No! no! no! No man should be treated so, no man, no man!”

I read a comment in the place where this text was quoted, in which the argument was made that we all have to die one day, and knowing when we are going to die has a redemptive effect, this justifying capital punishment from a conservative Christian point of view. The middle-ages took this theory to extremes, as the story of Franz Schmidt illustrates. This man was an executioner in Germany at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth. The accounts contained in this piece of history are absolutely gruesome, so only read it if you have a strong stomach.

Fundamentally, the theory was that the more pain and suffering that was inflicted on the condemned criminal in proportion to any degree of remorse or otherwise, the more the person could be saved from the pains of eternal hell. Schmidt sought to create a kind of preliminary last judgement to allow the condemned to made a “good end”. If there was a sign of remorse, the person would be dispatched quickly, and if not, he was subjected to an atrocious and lingering death by slow torture. It was a part of the belief of that era, and also that of the Inquisition whose barbaric methods were motivated by a “pastoral” consideration of converting the person.

Here in Europe and in most of the civilised world, we can be thankful that torture and executions have been abolished (even though there are occasionally scandals about torture being used by the army and police). Dostoevsky considered the disproportionate psychological punishment meted out on a condemned criminal, even one who had himself killed a person. I am also brought to consider the Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde. The hopelessness and wistfulness comes through as Wilde related the story of a prisoner condemned to be hanged for murder (very often a crime de passion in those days).

Can the worst criminals and serial killers be redeemed? The issue of crime and punishment is a very difficult one, and I am happy not to be the one who takes the moral responsibility of deciding, like a judge or lawmaker. I have had many conversations with my wife who works as a lawyer’s secretary. In canon law, there are medicinal and vindictive penalties. The former is designed to help a person get back on track, and the latter is a kind of revenge. The middle ages saw execution as a “medicinal” punishment. I hardly imagine such a thing motivating America’s electric chairs and lethal injection rooms! The real motivation of executing someone, as sentencing them to life imprisonment without parole, is getting rid of them.

There seem to be two important considerations when thinking about those who have committed heinous crimes. Society has to be protected from them and they must be deprived of freedom. If no reform is possible, then the detention has to be definitive. On the other hand, perhaps something other than modern prisons would be more appropriate, such as restoring penal colonies in inaccessible parts of the world like Devil’s Island or the Gulag. They can be allowed to work, live and rip each other to pieces if they so desire, but they would be exercising their free will with other criminals on equal terms. Perhaps that is just as cruel, but it certainly does away with that fateful moment known days, weeks or years in advance.

The law should make every effort to accommodate sincere conversion and repentance on the part of those who have committed heinous crimes. But such matters can only be entrusted to governments, lawmakers and judges versed in penal and constitutional law. The issues are difficult, but there must be something good even in the worst of the worst.

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