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Sunday, July 11, 2004

Garry Wills on Executions

The appalling spectacle surrounding the execution of Timothy McVeigh provides the backdrop for another of Garry Wills – not to be confused with a much less thoughtful George Will -- thoughtful articles, “The Dramaturgy of Death” in the New York Review of Books, June 21, 2001 (more evidence of how behind I am.) Wills reviews the philosophical bases for society’s use of capital punishment.. He discusses the urges that often find their rationalizations after the fact. The practice of “outlawing,” i.e., removing from the protection of the laws was often a form of killing by exclusion and it was practiced in our own colonies, most notably by Thomas Jefferson when he revised the statutes of Virginia. Certain categories of persons Jefferson wanted so excluded from the protection of society, e.g. Freed slaves who entered the state or refused to leave it, or “a white woman bearing a black child who does not leave the state within a year.” These people could be killed or mistreated at will because they were placed beyond the legal fabric. It became a way to keep the race pure and to maintain a social type (didn’t stop Jefferson from bedding his black sister-in-law, though.)

Other forms of legalized killing were used to legitimize a political structure (common in all revolutions) and social orders (in “Jefferson’s legal code, slaves could not testify against whites, but whites could testify against slaves,” and still today in many parts of the United States non-whites are much more likely to receive the death penalty than whites convicted of the same crime.) Often the way an execution was carried out served a purpose. In Elizabeth’s England, traitors were killed publicly in a particularly heinous and prescribed manner: “they were stripped, hanged, cut down living, castrated, [it was a male crime] heart and viscera thrown into boiling water, decapitated, quartered, and his head exposed on the Tower Bridge.” Joan of Arc’s public burning was intended to degrade and the Romans left bodies to dangle in the open and become food for birds and animals.
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