The Right Coast

March 17, 2005
Lynch Law
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.

And, yes, I know this aligns me in this instance with the Iranian government — but even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and in this instance the Iranians are quite correct.
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?

A hundred years ago or more, people were hanged by simply hauling them up and letting them kick and struggle until they died, which might take a quarter of an hour or so. Later the drop was introduced, theoretically making death instantaneous, though it does not always work very well.

In recent years, however, there seems to have been a tendency to revert to strangulation. I did not see the news film of the hanging of the German war criminals at Kharkov, but the descriptions in the British press appeared to show that the older method was used. So also with various executions in the Balkan countries.

The newspaper accounts of the Nuremberg hangings were ambiguous. There was talk of a drop, but there was also talk of the condemned men taking ten or twenty minutes to die. Perhaps, by a typically Anglo-Saxon piece of compromise, it was decided to use a drop but to make it too short to be effective.

It is not a good symptom that hanging should still be the accepted form of capital punishment in this country. Hanging is a barbarous, inefficient way of killing anybody, and at least one fact about it — quite widely known, I believe — is so obscene as to be almost unprintable.

Still, until recently we did feel rather uneasy on the subject, and we did have our hangings in private. Indeed, before the war, public execution was a thing of the past in nearly every civilized country. Now it seems to be returning, at least for political crimes, and though we ourselves have not actually reintroduced it as yet, we participate at second hand by watching the news films.

It is queer to look back and think that only a dozen years ago the abolition of the death penalty was one of those things that every enlightened person advocated as a matter of course, like divorce reform or the independence of India. Now, on the other hand, it is a mark of enlightenment not merely to approve of executions but to raise an outcry because there are not more of them.

Therefore it seems to me of some importance to know whether strangulation is now coming to be the normal practice. For if people are being taught to gloat not only over death but over a peculiarly horrible form of torture, it marks another turn on the downward spiral that we have been following ever since 1933.
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".