The death penalty is still very much alive

Dossier ~ Tuesday 23rd February 2010 ~ 2 commentaires
The Broken Ear (1937)

Despite the repeated intervention of international organisations, the death penalty is being handed down in courts in countries across the world, on a daily basis. Having faced the death sentence on several occasions, Tintin has direct experience of this dreadful punishment. Let us take a look at the origins, history and modern-day use of this brutal punitive measure.

Brought back into use in the United States in 1977, today capital punishment is common

In the year 2007 alone, some 1252 executions were recorded in 24 countries, and at least 3347 people were condemned to death in 51 countries. This figure is likely to be inaccurate as it does not take into account the many executions which take place outside of the public eye. The whole world seems to be implicated: the death penalty is not only a state-controlled punishment but is also practised by terrorists. Sometimes these executions are highly publicised such as the televised 'death sentence' (murder) of journalist Daniel Pearl by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, on 1 February 2002. Such spectacles highlight the general public's morbid fascination with death: the video of Daniel Pearl's murder was one of the most watched videos on the internet.

A public spectacle

The death penalty continues regularly to be handed down to prisoners. In 2007, Amnesty International was able to gather very detailed statistics. We learn that 470 executions took place in China. Iran imposed the death penalty on more than 317 people. Saudi Arabia killed 143 people, while in Pakistan the figure was 135. In America 42 people were executed. Iraq carried out capital punishment on 33 people and 25 people were killed by the state in Vietnam. Going to the bottom of the list, Ethiopia made a single known execution. Today most countries  -  China, Iran and Saudi Arabia aside  -  choose to carry out the death penalty quietly and not to make public spectacles out of such events. But until relatively recently, the beginning of the twentieth century, the decapitation of French prisoners drew huge crowds in France, while in England people turned out in force to see hangings. If we consider the executions of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (1793), these were clearly major public affairs requiring event management on a scale today reserved for the likes of The X-Factor. Such spectacles are a tradition stretching back to the time of the Dark Ages. Grisly killings were considered to set an important example to the general public. It deterred crime and instilled fear, while also giving good folk the impression that justice was being done.

Le journaliste Daniel Pearl
Un coeur invaincu - Film sur la vie et la mort de Daniel Pearl
Action organisée par Amnesty International aux Etats-Unis

An affirmation of power

For thousands of years, heads of states and tribes have demonstrated their strength by exercising their power of life and death over others. Appealing to the base instincts of their subjects, historical rulers offered spectacles not far removed from the deadly gladiatorial battles that took place in the Roman arenas. Such events made people who might not share the opinions of powerful rulers think twice about making a fuss: the more horrible the method of execution, the more convincing a deterrent it made against attempting to upset the apple cart. If a gruesome display was necessary, then so be it! Before the French Revolution, murderers were hanged unless they were of noble background, in which case they were decapitated by an axe or a sword. In fact it was not necessary to commit any crime in order to be slaughtered in this way: it was enough to displease the king. It was for this reason that several of Henry VIII's wives and concubines went to the chopping block. Thousands have been burned to death at the stake, their only crimes being to oppose the Church (both Catholic and Protestant). It was all too easy to denounce anyone who tried to introduce new ideas as a 'heretic', and to have them killed.

A catalogue of horror

The gruesome method of hanging, drawing and quartering also had its time. King Edward I of England executed the famous leader of the resistance during the Wars of Scottish Independence, William Wallace, in this manner. The condemned man was hanged for some time, although not enough time to kill him. His genitals were then cut off, and his body cut open. The executioner then removed his intestines with a pulley and burned them, before beheading him and cutting him into four parts. Wallace's head was stuck on a pole on London Bridge, and his limbs were sent to four different parts of the country as warnings. In the Middle Ages, counterfeiters were plunged into boiling oil. In England, Henry VIII made boiling a legal form of capital punishment, used to execute poisoners. It was specifically used in the case of John Roose, a cook for the Bishop of Rochester, who poisoned several people. Under King Louis XIV and King Louis XV, French judges condemned highwaymen to be 'broken on the wheel'. The prisoner was tied to a large wooden wagon wheel, with arms and legs spread-eagled. The executioner then smashed their limbs and bodies with cudgels. Execution by elephant was a common capital punishment for thousands of years in South and Southeast Asia, particularly India. Elephants were controlled by a rider and could be trained either to torture their victims slowly with spikes attached to their tusks, or to kill them immediately, often by crushing their heads. In China, slow slicing, or Ling Chi, was used as a way to execute people. 'The death by a thousand cuts' was carried out with the aid of a knife; small portions of the condemned were removed bit by bit.

Pendaison 1902
Martyre de St Hippolyte 1470-1475

An unbridled imagination

Man has never been short of ideas when it comes to killing his fellow man. Many people have been sewn into bags and drowned, or buried alive. The fearsome Mongol warlord Genghis Khan (1162-1227) had a reputation for burying his victims up to their necks and then driving a herd of horses over them, breaking their skulls. Strangulation has been extremely popular: up until the end of General Franco's rule over Spain (1975) it was, along with death by firing squad, one of the most widely used methods of execution.

How have things changed?

Some aspects of the death penalty have remained stubbornly consistent. Under the Old Regime in France (before the French Revolution) only noblemen and kings had the right to an 'honourable' death: decapitation by an axe or a sword. Tintin narrowly escapes experiencing the same fate in The Blue Lotus. This cruel practice still exists today in archaic monarchies, for example in Saudi Arabia. It was also employed by the nazis who often reserved decapitation for women, refusing to shoot them as they did men. The guillotine eventually took over from the axe. Although it was designed by several people, the louisette (another name for the killing machine) was promoted by Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, whose name became permanently tied with the new machine due to a remark he made on 1 December 1789 to an assembly discussing capital punishment: 'Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!'

The Blue Lotus p16
Genghis Khan

The guillotine's royal origins

On 6 October 1791, The French Legislative Assembly decreed that: 'All those condemned shall have their heads cut off.' During a debate three years previously, Dr Guillotin had already proposed that: 'The criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism.' On 25 April 1792, the first execution by guillotine was carried out. The condemned was a highwayman called Nicolas Jacques Pelletier. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't Dr Guillotin who built the guillotine. He harboured resentment for the rest of his life due to the fact that he was never once invited to attend a single execution! It should also be noted that he did not fall victim of 'his' own machine: he died of natural causes in Paris in 1814. The brains behind the machinery was a German engineer called Tobias Schmidt, who is better known for his more harmonious work as a harpsichord builder. He was a friend of the official executioner of Paris, Charles Henri Sanson. Sanson, the 'Executioner of the French Revolution', told the apocryphal story that it was King Louis XVI himself, a fervent DIY enthusiast, who suggested that the guillotine be fitted with a triangular blade as opposed to a horizontal one, for reasons of efficiency. If the story is true, then the king would soon be able to test his theory personally: he was guillotined on 21 January 1793. France, Belgium, Sweden and certain districts of Switzerland adopted the new method of execution.

Execution by firing squad

Tintin knows something about this method of capital punishment, which is one of the most widely used means of carrying out a death sentence. Re-read the classics: Cigars of the Pharaoh, The Broken Ear, and Tintin and the Picaros (in which the Thom(p)sons face the firing squad) are all stories which depict this form of execution. While considering this method, it is worth noting that while advances in technology have resulted in upgraded methods of execution, the basic ideas behind these methods have remained the same ever since capital punishment began. In this way, death by firing squad is simply a development of death by archers, who were responsible for shooting prisoners to death with arrows. The famous example of such an execution is the death of the legendary figure of Saint Sebastian. In fact, the only method of capital punishment which has not stood the test of time, is that of crucifixion. Used often by the Romans, only a handful of cases are recorded in more recent history. Death by impalement, in which the victim is sat on a spike which slowly works its way towards the heart, ensures a slow and horrible end. This method had some success in African kingdoms, notably during the rule of the Zulu 'Napoleon', Shaka (1787-1828).

Cigars of the Pharaon p 28
The Broken Ear p 20
Tintin and the Picaros p 60
Guillotines françaises - A gauche de 1792 - A droite: de 1872
Un exemplaire du modèle Berger 1872 construit vers 1890

Towards new techniques, and more death

The invention of the electric chair accompanied the arrival of electricity. Used for the first time in 1890, the chair has since been used in 25 American states (and in the Philippines, from 1924 to 1976). Condemned prisoners are now allowed to choose between the chair and the lethal injection  -  a more 'modern' method  -  with the last involuntary execution using the electric chair carried out on 10 May 2002.The chair has several nicknames: Sizzlin' Sally, Old Smokey, Old Sparky, Yellow Mama and Gruesome Gertie. Today, American prisoners condemned to death can still request to be executed by electricity. Certain American states have recourse to several other methods of execution: hanging, the firing squad and the gas chamber (the most infamous execution by which took place in May 1960, with the killing of Caryl Chessman).

A history of the death penalty

Over the course of human history, killing others has taken on several aspects. There is the crime of murder, pure and simple, as symbolised by the myth of Cain and Abel and by other legendary killings made infamous by religions and mythologies all over the world. Ever since man began living in groups or tribes, he has taken care to defend his territory against attack. The most efficient method of achieving this end is to kill enemies. It is true that slavery originated in the idea of showing leniency to people conquered in war. Beforehand, prisoners of war were simply killed. The death penalty expresses a primitive form of justice. A thief is obliged to return an object he has stolen. If he cannot return it then his hand, the tool used to commit the crime, is cut off. From this perspective, a punishment should be equivalent to the crime committed: a life for a life. This was the prevalent idea in the Middle Ages, expressed by the equation: 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'.

Tintin in America p 35
Exécution appelé le vieil éclair 
Une chambre à gaz à Auschwitz

The death penalty as a way to maintain control

Certain governments kill for other reasons aside from the punishment of simple crimes. From the time of the first societies, certain acts, including political opposition, incest and religious heresy, have often merited the death penalty. Some offences have been punishable by death in certain countries but not others, and at certain moments in history but not others. Nevertheless, one of the key reasons that the death penalty has generally been in use for so long is that it is a fearsome deterrent. Theoretically it should make anyone considering committing a crime think twice. The death penalty has been used to make an example of the condemned on many occasions in the twentieth century. In the Soviet Union, Stalin executed his political opponents. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein ordered the execution of thousands of innocent people to maintain his fearful grip on the country. In the end, he was himself killed by his opponents following a show trial managed by the United States. Millions of Jews were sent to their deaths in Tsarist Russia, and then by the Nazi regime in Germany. In these cases the killing was done for yet another reason: the genocide of human beings for reasons of ethnicity, otherwise known as ethnic cleansing. Thus we have the plight of the Armenians, decimated by the Turks, the Rwandan Tutsis massacred by the vengeful Hutus, and so many other cases. Sometimes the death penalty is presented as an honour! In some ancient societies slaves were buried alive with their kings, to continue to be able to serve them in the afterlife. This practice was prevalent in certain Etruscan and Egyptian societies.

Death as religious punishment

From some perspectives, the death penalty is seen as the gateway to eternal punishment in the next life. This is what, in any case, most of the main religions that have existed in human history have postulated. There is, nevertheless, a contradiction in this supposition. Religions explain that the 'judgements of God are impenetrable'. God is therefore the final judge and He may well decide to adopt different criteria for assessing worthiness, than that used by human beings. From this angle, someone condemned to death might well be able to enter Heaven. But where's the punishment in that' Executioners should think about their actions, which seem to imply such little confidence in their gods' judgements that they feel obliged to dish out death and torture themselves.

To die is not enough

Descriptions of the 'torments' (the word used in the Middle Ages for torture) are enough to give anyone nightmares. Crushed limbs, flayed skin, sliced tongues and ears, boiled bodies, molten lead poured down throats and all sorts of other horrors were inflicted before the coup de grâce. People tortured on the wheel (see above) could be given periods of 'respite' rather than being strangled following their beatings: depending on the gravity of the crime, the condemned had to wait for anything from a few minutes to a few days before dying, in order to satisfy the judges' desire to see them suffer for their sins. At this point, could you stomach a résumé? If you have had the courage to follow the report up to this point  -  bravo! The only thing to be said is that the death penalty is one of the darkest aspects of humankind. The terrible crimes committed by some are answered in no less terrible ways. One further thing to consider, which we have not had the time to touch on here, is the fact that innocent people are sometimes accidentally killed in this way. By way of conclusion we note that if anything is to be learned from the death penalty, it is that we should try hard to make the most of our precious lives on Earth.

Torture Roue.jpg
Vos contributions (2) Contribuer
tinajoron1Thursday 3rd December 2015 à 18:39
This is horrible, they are very evils!
nitnit714Saturday 17th September 2011 à 23:07
creepy!
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