The Right Coast
March 17, 2005
By Maimon Schwarzschild
Eugene Volokh is one of the loveliest people there is, and one of the smartest and wisest. It is almost reassuring that he too has aberrational moments, as have we all. Eugene posts in support of an Iranian execution of a serial killer and child rapist. The culprit first was publicly whipped -- 100 lashes, with the crowd baying "Harder! Harder!" -- then stabbed by a brother of one of the killer's victims (this may not have been planned by the authorities, although they certainly didn't prevent it), then publicly hanged from a crane so that he slowly strangled, the noose having been put round his neck by the mother of another victim. Further details here from the BBC.
The culprit -- I assume, or at least I hope, that the man punished really was the culprit -- had kidnapped, sexually molested, and murdered at least twenty boys. Eugene says:
I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.I think not.
This man was "executed" by being publicly tortured to death, with relatives of the victims egged on by the authorities to participate. It was a lynching, and lynching is not the "rule of law": lynching is what the rule of law is meant to sublimate and replace.
(Let's be clear. A lynching victim is not necessarily innocent as charged; and many people have no doubt been lynched on evidence as good as might be acceptable to a court in the Islamic Republic of Iran.)
As the BBC notes in passing, "hanging by strangling" -- more about this method in a moment -- is common in Iran. In other words, executions in this fashion are common for "culprits" who are not serial killers. People are executed in this way for political offences, and certainly for acts that would scarcely be crimes in most countries. The psychology of the situation, though, is that all such executions are more "legitimate" if any of them is. This may not be logical, but I don't doubt that the Mullahs are shrewd in thinking along these lines.
It is no accident that civilised countries don't torture people to death. One reason is that there's no way, really, of restricting the torture to people who "deserve" it. On the contrary, torture obviously encourages bloodlust, and Hobbesian behaviour generally. Is it coincidental that the Iranian authorities are channelling popular rage in South Tehran -- the poorer part of the capital -- towards this wretched man, at a time that their regime is threatened and democratic aspirations are mounting?
(The Communists used to say "It's no accident" about things that were accidental, or that didn't even happen: it was one of Stalin's standard, paranoid, rhetorical tropes. But this really is no accident.)
Anyhow, if you "execute" the serial killer of twenty children in this way, what do you do to criminals who are worse still? A substantial fraction of the population of Rwanda recently participated in genocide-by-machete. Many still alive in Russia (and the former USSR) officiated in the Gulag. What would Eugene wish the State of Israel to have done with Adolf Eichmann? And what would he have done with the tens of thousands, no, hundreds of thousands and more -- from camp guards on up (or down) -- who carried out the Nazi Final Solution?
George Orwell wrote about this just after the Nazi defeat, in November, 1946:
There is one question which at first sight looks both petty and disgusting but which I should like to see answered. It is this: In the innumerable hangings of war criminals which have taken place all over Europe during the past few years, which method has been followed—the old method of strangulation, or the modern, comparatively humane method which is supposed to break the victim’s neck at one snap?I hope Eugene's post was satirical, in dark Swiftian style. But if not, here's a vote for George Orwell, and against what Eugene rightly calls "cruel vengeance".