Capital Punishment

The recent decapitation of Saddam Hussein's half-brother, apparently an accident as he was being hanged along with another of Saddam's hated henchmen, only underscored the barbarity of the use of the death penalty -- however heinous the crime.

In fact, the use of the legal term "capital punishment" itself is a throwback to the days when the application death penalty literally meant to be relieved of one's head -- "caput" in Latin. This was usually done by means of a sword or an axe.

While the ancient Athenians seem to have substituted the obligation of drinking poison, at least for eminent citizens like Socrates, the Romans considered decapitation something a privilege for its erring citizens. Lesser types, like slaves and non-citizens were generally crucified, burned, or thrown to the lions for the people's amusement or education. This is why St. Paul, as a Roman citizen, was decapitated by the sword, where St. Peter, a non-citizen was, at least according to an ancient Church tradition, crucified upside down.

One would think that after all those ancient horrors, Christianity would have been against capital punishment from the very start. In fact, for the first few centuries of Christian history, the cross was virtually absent from Christian symbolism or art. But after Christian emperors abolished crucifixion, decapitation remained the preferred method of execution in Europe, with burning at the stake reserved for witches and heretics. The English introduced hangings in the tenth century, but during the murderous reign of Henry VIII decapitations became common, and continued under Bloody Mary -- who also reintroduced burnings -- and "Good Queen Bess", who added drawing and quartering to hanging for further terror and amusement. Eventually the English apparently had enough of decapitations and opted for simple hangings instead. The American colonies mostly followed suit.

The 1791 French Revolution saw the introduction of the guillotine, a high tech (for its time) device that eliminated the problem of axe-men who couldn't aim straight. Meanwhile, Austria and Tuscany eliminated the death penalty altogether, and in 1846, Michigan led the way in the USA, abolishing it for all but the crime of treason. Wisconsin and Rhode Island followed Michigan's lead, but removed the death penalty for all crimes. However, the other, less progressive states eventually added firing squads, electric chairs, gas chambers, or lethal injections -- this latter reminding one for all the world of the hemlock that Socrates was forced to drink. Two states still allow hanging.

But one can't help but wonder when America as a whole will catch up with most of the world and abolish the death penalty altogether. Today, other than a dwindling number of states in the USA, it is mostly Muslim countries, with the exception of Turkey, and some left-overs from the Communist world, that still execute many criminals instead of just locking them up for life.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has joined most of the rest of the Christian Churches in opposing the use of the death-penalty. The reason should be obvious by now. As one Iraqi -- presumably a Muslim -- commented after this latest gory fiasco, executions only promote more violence. The shame is that even after two-thousand years, many Americans who still like to think of themselves as Christians still don't get it.

R W Kropf 1/16/07 Decap3.doc 07-01-16.html