Public hangings were part of everyday life in Victorian England. In some countries they still are. Saddam Hussein was executed on the front pages of the Sunday newspapers just before the start of the New Year. And on many internet sites.
Admittedly he was no angel, but then neither were the newspapers which scrambled with indecent haste to publish the picture of his last moments before the noose was tied round his neck.
I don’t really know how I feel about the death sentence. If someone murdered my sister, I suppose I would happily watch them hang. But the death penalty seems somewhat barbaric and almost mediaeval in a modern society, as does extracting confessions under torture.
In Victorian England you could be hanged for over a hundred different offences, one of which included impersonating a Chelsea pensioner. And one unfortunate man was transported to Australia for stealing a cucumber.
And then of course, in centuries gone by there was crucifixion, death by starvation, being thrown off cliffs, burning at the stake, being impaled and being made to drink hot oil. Not much choice there.
But before we smile in a patronising fashion at the follies of times gone by, maybe we should just read the daily newspaper. Executions by firing squad, and death by stoning, by lethal injection and by hanging are by no means a historical oddity. Are these executions institutionalised murder, or merely just desserts?
Arguments for and against
The argument for execution goes something like this: we have here a brutal sadist who was responsible for the deaths of many people. We want to remove him from society permanently and don’t want to carry the cost of his incarceration. He needs to be punished in order to give the message loud and clear that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated, so everyone else better look out.
The argument against hanging goes something like this: we recognise that a heinous crime has been perpetrated, but do two wrongs make a right? The state should be the guardian of everyone’s human rights – including those of murderers. Several studies have shown that the death penalty does not work as a deterrent. And it is a bit like trying to show the Grade 7 class bully that violence does not work by giving him a hiding. Is it right that we punish the individual for what are often actually the ills of society?
5 ways to kill a man
When you are hanged, a trap door is usually opened beneath your feet (which are bound), and your weight causes a rapid fracture dislocation of the neck. Instantaneous death seldom occurs. If your neck does not break instantly you will die from asphyxiation. Your face will become engorged, your tongue will hang out, the eyes will pop out and you will probably soil your pants.
When killed by firing squad, you will be tied to a chair, which is surrounded by sandbags to absorb your blood. A hood is pulled over your head and a couple of people with rifles stand about twenty feet away. They aim at you and fire. Death will be as a result of blood loss, either because of a heart rupture, or rupture of a major vessel. Failing that, your lungs will be torn apart. If those in the firing squad aim well, you will quickly lose consciousness, as the oxygen flow to your brain is cut off. Otherwise, you will simply bleed to death slowly.
When executed by lethal injection, you will be tied to something that looks like a hospital trolley and have two needles inserted into a vein. An overdose of the anaesthetic sodium thiopental is injected into your body. This is followed by pancuronium bromide, which stops your breathing. Then last but not least, a dose of potassium chloride stops your heart beating. Of all the ways, this is probably the least painful.
Then of course there is the electric chair. You are tied to a chair and strapped down. An electrode is attached to your scalp and your forehead and another one to your leg. You are then blindfolded. On a signal, the warden pulls a lever, which sends a jolt of between 500 and 2000 volts through your body. This lasts for about 30 seconds. Doctors will now check whether your heart is still beating, and if you are, this process is repeated. Violent limb movements can lead to bone fractures. Chances are you will soil your pants and that there will be a smell of burning flesh.
And finally, death by gassing. You will be placed in an airtight chamber and will be strapped to a chair. Under the chair is a container filled with sulphuric acid. The executioner flicks a lever that causes crystals of sodium cyanide to leak into the bucket. The chemical reaction causes hydrogen cyanide gas to be released into the chamber. You will die from your oxygen flow to your brain being cut off. Your death will be similar to that of someone who is being strangled.
Does the death penalty work?
Think about it for a moment – through the centuries murderers have been hanged, executed, flayed and shot in their thousands. This has not removed the murderous tendencies from our gene pool. On the contrary. (And what’s more, Australia is one of the countries on earth with the lowest crime rate and it used to be a prison colony.)
There are frequently calls to reinstate the death penalty in countries that have abolished it. Especially in the cases of serial killers and child rapists. I suspect, however, that if people were called upon to flick the switch of the trap door themselves or be part of the firing squad they might be less enthusiastic. Let’s face it, if you had to slit the throat of that calf yourself before you had a barbecue, there would be many more vegetarians on this earth.
But then what do we do with those who pose an enormous danger to our society as a whole, and who have broken every single social and moral code most other people hold dear? Build more prisons, give more psychiatric medication, or build a large scaffold on the town square? The jury’s still out on this one, so watch your step.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24, January 2007)