What’s Next, Headless People Walking Around?

This is a post about the futility of trying to make capital and physical punishment humane. I read an update on the case of Raif Badawi and (notwithstanding the complete injustice of his case as a whole*), I found myself thinking, this is insane. This is like…

The Land of the Headless

In the novel, Land of the Headless by Adam Roberts, society demands beheading as a punishment for certain crimes, but cannot reconcile this with its moral attitude to murder and death. Therefore they invent technology which allows them to carry out the prescribed punishment of beheading without it being a death sentence. Suffice to say the idea is seriously messed up and makes for a hard time suspending disbelief as a reader.

When I first came across this book, I found the concept completely unbelievable. Would a society really go so far to preserve the letter of religious law? Surely they would recognise that although “beheading” is the prescribed punishment, the implication is that the punishment is death by beheading. And if they did recognise that, surely they would simply change the punishment to something more appropriate in a society that had progressed beyond that which created the law in the first place.


Flogging the Humane WayStop the Lashes - Free Raif Badawi

In the news yesterday it was announced that, despite international protest, Saudi Arabia’s supreme court has ruled to uphold the sentence of 10 years imprisonment and 1000 lashes for blogger Raif Badawi. But, while the sentence has been upheld, at present the next batch of 50 lashes has still not been administered.

Several times now his lashes have been postponed on medical grounds. It seems the judicial system in Saudi Arabia is barbaric enough to sentence him to flogging, but civilised enough to make sure that said flogging doesn’t endanger his life, or cause permanent damage.

It seems likely that the prescription of 1000 lashes was originally meant to be the method by which the convict should die, because no one could survive such a torture. So surely Raif Badawi’s sentence should be interpreted as a death sentence. Instead, by advances in modern medicine, communication and so on, the Saudi’s are attempting to implement the prescribed punishment in a humane way.

They can’t justify lashing a man to death, so they find a way to interpret the law which allows them to stick to the details without carrying out the distasteful spirit of the law.

It’s frighteningly close to Roberts’ imagined concept of humane beheading.

It begs the question, as Robert’s book did, how far would religious fundamentalists go to preserve the letter of religious law while making it morally acceptable? If the technology existed to allow victims of beheading to continue living, would Islamic nations adopt it?

Meanwhile in the Beacon of Civilisation

Across the other side of the world, the US state of Texas last week executed a 67-year-old man convicted of multiple murders. Lester Bower had spent 30 years on death row while the sentence was postponed time and again. He was executed by lethal injection which is usually considered the acceptably humane method in the US.

What makes any one method of killing someone better than any other? What does it matter to the person to be executed whether they are unconscious or conscious, suffer for thirty seconds, or a minute, or an hour? Why would it matter whether they are physically and mentally well before they are strapped down? They’re going to be dead by the end of it anyway.

It’s total bullshit designed to make something that is not okay acceptable. None of it makes execution more humane, it simply makes society feel better about itself after it has done the deed.

Many US states are abolishing the death penalty as they slowly come to the conclusion that no matter how humane they try to make the method and circumstances, it will never be humane to end a human life.

Of course, it is far easier to change constitutional, secular law than it is law founded in religion.

Morals vs Morals

It’s clear that in the modern age, we (the societal we, that is) struggle to reconcile moral outrage with moral responsibility. Within any socio-economic context there are crimes which our moral sensibilities tell us need punishment. We cannot let someone get away with something that offends our sense of right and wrong. But our moral sensibilities also make it impossible to look past the reality of the punishments we deal out. Within any population, those two opposites may be represented by different groups of people, or by a shared personal, internal conflict.

We try to reconcile the two by focusing on the details in the hope that by making the details humane we somehow transform the punishment as a whole into something acceptable.

But really, what kind of messed up crap is that?

If a nation cannot find the conviction to abolish archaic, barbaric punishments, let them go back to public hangings and the stock, where convicted criminals were pelted with rotten vegetables by a baying crowd. At least that was honest, and better that than a land with headless people walking around.

* There has been much debate on the subject of Raif Badawi’s supposed crimes. He has been sentenced for blogging and encouraging free debate about religion, a right and freedom we in the west have enjoyed for a long time. I particularly wanted to highlight the insane and futile notion of trying to make inhumane punishments humane with this blog post, but if you’d like to find out more about Raif’s case, and how you can support the campaign for his release check out the link below:

Support the campaign to free Raif Badawi at Amnesty International


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