The Soul of the Condemned

When I read that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was to be executed for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I immediately scrolled down to the comments. I was not surprised at what I found, but a little dismayed.

The bulk of the comments were to the effect that death was too good for Tsarnaev. That he should be made to suffer the same physical injuries that his victims suffered. That the pain he inflicted upon others should be revisited upon his person several times over. No comments that I read advocated anything that resembled compassion, rehabilitation, or even a quick, clean removal of Tsarnaev from our mortal company.

The very beginning of Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault illustrates the cultural shift from public executions and corporal punishment to “improved” and “humane” execution methods and rehabilitation. Brutal public executions used to be the norm for the administration of capital punishment. However the object of the penal system, Foucault observes, has shifted from the body of the condemned to the soul or the rights of the condemned. It is true, of course, that when a person locked in a cell, his body is necessarily involved. However, the purpose of locking up a convict is to take away his liberty, not to punish his body. The same is true of modern capital punishment. The purpose of execution is to take away the condemned’s right to live, not to destroy his body. Although the body is necessarily destroyed by execution, the intent of the act is simply to remove life, not to inflict pain.

This is why the guillotine was designed to instantly sever the head. This is why the hangman measured the rope so that the drop would break the convict’s neck. And this is why, when Tsarnaev is ultimately killed, it will be by injection with a series of chemicals, the first of which will put him to sleep. The separation of body and soul that happens literally with the stopping of Tsarnaev’s heart first happens figuratively when the executioner administers the first dose of chemicals. It is Tsarnaev’s right to live that is being taken by the state; the adverse effects on the body are collateral.

Conduct of Life

Beer of the week: Conduct of Life – The most innovative gifts that my bride and I received for our wedding was a cooler full of “Vermont beer rarities and esoterica.” Among these special brews was this hazy, unfiltered American pale ale from Hill Farmstead Brewery.  The aroma has hints of lemon and pineapple. The beer is smooth and well balanced, though dominated by citrusy hops. It is quite a delicious beer.

Reading of the week: In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka – By the time I was a few pages into Discipline and Punish, I could not stop thinking about this short story by Kafka. The question of what role the body of the condemned has in the penal system is central to this story, as is the shift away from corporal punishment toward… well… something else.

Question of the week: To what extent can capital punishment be divorced from corporal punishment? Would execution be more humane if the condemned never saw it coming?

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One Comment on “The Soul of the Condemned”

  1. Cole says:

    In the movie “Killing them Softly” Brad Pitt plays a hit man who goes out of his way to keep his victim from seeing it coming until the doom is on them.

    An author I like made this following observation: Modern times are marked by a decrease in vindictive punishment, because we are liable to make the correct judgment that crime is bad for the doer of crime. So what we call punishment should either cure him of whatever disease (mental or physical) has led him to do such things, protect ourselves from him, and repair (if one can) the injustice done. We have “correctional facilities.” He then points out that the vindictive passion is still present, even behind the more rational rhetoric. We still don’t send criminals on little vacations to clear their heads and settle their hearts. And sometimes we utter that little commonsense lie, “He got off scot-free!”

    The author I am talking about is David Leibowitz. He wrote a book called An Ironic Defense of Socrates.


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