October 14, 2005


The Meaning of Beheading: All too sad to explain (Theodore Dalrymple, October 24, 2005, National Review)

In the days when murderers in Britain could still be executed by hanging, the Home Office used to receive five unsolicited applications a week for the position of hangman (not even the most rigidly doctrinal feminist has ever demanded that we use the word hangperson). The desire to kill one’s fellow beings in the pursuit of a good cause, in this case the preservation of law and order and the prevention of murder, is therefore quite widespread, even under the most civilized conditions.

There is no doubt that a good execution has its attractions. Once when I arrived in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, I found it deserted, a ghost city: Everyone was away at the public executions. The television report later that day said that the crowd was very nearly disappointed, because the execution ground had been waterlogged, but fortunately — at least for the spectators — a dry area was found into which the stakes could be driven so that the criminals could be shot after all.

Doctor Johnson thought that, if one of the purposes of an execution was to deter, it should be held in public. Certainly public executions were very popular, and in the past everyone loved a good one: When Dr. William Palmer, for example — the Prince of Poisoners — was hanged at Stafford Gaol in 1856, the number of spectators exceeded the population of the town by three times. (Palmer was in advance of his time as far as the precautionary principle was concerned. Approaching the somewhat rickety and ramshackle scaffold with the hangman, he turned to him and asked, “Is it safe?”)

Charles I was beheaded with an axe: Such a death was considered nobler and more dignified than mere hanging, a form of execution unbecoming for the upper classes. Beheading remained the prerogative of the well-born in Europe until Dr. Guillotin, in the name of humanity, proposed his democratic beheading machine after the Convention decreed in 1792 that all executions henceforth should be by decapitation; the machine swiftly proved popular with the crowds and was last used in public in France in 1939. There was once a considerable and learned medical debate in France not only about the most humane method of severing the head from the body, but about whether consciousness survived beheading, the lips and eyes of the beheaded having sometimes been seen in the basket to move for some seconds after separation from the neck.

Since then, our sensibility in the matter of decapitation has changed greatly. During the war the Japanese beheaded many of their prisoners, not as a tribute to their nobility, but as an expression of complete contempt for them. This provoked our revulsion. Beheading of any kind henceforth seemed to us barbaric and primitive. One might have moral qualms about the hygienically sound, quasi-medical, almost euphemistic executions by injection that take place in chambers bearing a too-close resemblance to operating rooms, but no one would propose beheading as an alternative.

It's too French.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 14, 2005 6:28 PM

It's too, French!

Posted by: obc at October 14, 2005 8:38 PM