Sunday, January 31, 2021

Guillotines and Other Instruments of Mercy

Several methods of execution, which we consider to be cruel, were actually invented in order to make the process of execution more humane, in several ways. For example, some were invented to hide the identity of the executioner, who was only obeying orders and did not want to receive animosity from the family and friends of the victim who were watching. Others were invented to make the execution itself less painful.

Consider the first purpose.

  • In ancient and medieval times, executioners who used an axe to cut off the condemned person’s head, wore black masks to hide their identity.
  • Later, when guns were used, there was no single executioner, but a firing squad, only one or two of whom had live ammo in their guns. No one, including the other executioners, could be sure who, or who else, fired the fatal bullet or bullets.

Consider the second purpose.

  • The black-masked executioners would hide the axe blade itself until the victim had a blindfold put on, to reduce the tension of both the victim and the executioner.
  • When we think of the French Revolution, we think of crazy people running around and cutting everyone’s heads off with the guillotine. But the guillotine was an invention to make the execution less painful. The heavy blade slid down grooves, attaining gravitational acceleration, and made a precise and decisive cut. Previously—and even today, in some cultures, where beheading by axe or sword is still practiced—the executioner might miss his aim just slightly, or not chop hard enough, thereby prolonging the torture of the victim. We cannot know (no one has lived to report it) what the brain experiences at the moment of beheading. It might be prolonged agony, or shock might instantly set in, causing immediate unconsciousness.
  • If the authorities simply hung a criminal, the person would slowly and painfully suffocate. But the trap door allows the criminal to fall, and the knot, if tied correctly, instantly breaks the victim’s neck.
  • Execution by electrocution? I don’t know much about that one.
  • But lethal injection is a mixture of drugs, at least one of which induces lethargy. Certainly better than cyanide, which makes you suffocate and you know you are suffocating.

Through recent history, executions have become more humane and also less common. Unfortunately, torture remains very common, even when it is called “enhanced interrogation techniques” by supposedly humane nations. Further, assassins give no attention to reducing pain. When the Russians use nerve poison to assassinate victims, the pain of the victim is their last thought. And terrorists, whether Muslim jihadists or Christian white supremacists, probably consider their reputation enhanced by not only the suffering of the victim but the shock of entire nations.

Social evolution has diverged: more humane executions, and more dreadful tortures and technologically advanced terrorism.

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