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The sacred executioner
Written by Editor   
Sunday, 21 May 2006 15:52

In his book, "The Sacred Executioner," Hyam Maccoby notes:

"A figure in mythology that has received little attention is that of the Sacred Executioner. [...] By taking the blame for the slaying, he is performing a great service to society, for not only does he perform the deed, but he takes upon himself the blame for it, and thus absolves society as a whole completely from the guilt of a slaying for which they, in fact, are responsible and by which, in theory at least, they benefit." ( Maccoby, 1982, p 7-8)

While Maccobys goal is to explore Judaism and Christianity as they relate to religious sacrifice and Jewish persecution, his brilliant insight with regard to the sacred executioner can be applied to other pockets of society. Especially those falling within the arena of crime and punishment.

Upon hearing of new and increasingly heinous crimes, there is quite often a public outcry for blood atonement. As more and more individuals flock to the Internet to voice their opinions, that outcry--in the form of people typing madly away on their keyboards wishing all sorts of evil upon the alleged perpetrator--has at times, seemed cacophonous. With the November 28, 1994 murder of Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer--a perpetrator who raped, tortured, murdered, parted out, and ate his victims, while using their various body parts to decorate his apartment--came a new wish: the Dahmer treatment.

It is indeed unsurprising that some will call for a slow and torturous death of an alleged perpetrator when hearing of the victims last hours, days, weeks, or--as in the case of Dylan Groene--months. One need only see the visage of that precious little boy whose bright flame was so brutally snuffed out to find themselves angered beyond compare--to perhaps find themselves thinking that even the Dahmer treatment isnt good enough for someone like Joseph Edward Duncan III. Such atrocities evince understandably visceral reactions and a desire for swift and severe retribution. And such often comes in the form of demanding capital punishment, also referred to as the death penalty.

The death penalty is as old as time immemorial. One need only look to history to find it in its various forms. Whether it involved gruesome entertainment for the masses such as the Roman coliseum events pitting man against beast or one another, crucifixion, burning at the stake, firing squads, or beheadings--where townspeople gathered to gawk at the carnage that was played out upon societys pariahs. During the renaissance era, hoods were worn as both a method of protecting identity as well as attempting to distance the executioner as much as was possible from their task. Thus, the executioners hood has become as much a symbol of death as the scythe bearing Grim Reaper. We have of course become much more civilized over time. Proficient even. Or so some claim.

The last guillotine execution occurred in France in 1977, at which point it was retired from service. In the United States, hanging was the execution of choice up through the late 1800s. Hanging was eventually replaced by the electric chair or gas chamber as more humane forms of execution and in response to the often grotesque marionettes dance of botched hangings. While New York was the first state to move to the electric chair, the most well-known and recognized electric chair resided in Ohio--possibly due to its nickname. Old Sparky was retired in 2002. Floridas 1999 botched electrocution of Allen Lee Davis resulted in the "execution that was heard around the world." They moved to lethal injection the following year.

Although lethal injection has become the execution method of choice for the majority in America, not all states use this method. For example, from the death penalty information site, Utah and Idaho still use firing squads wherein "one of the five .30 caliber rifles contain blanks." The latter is alleged to allay whatever guilt might be felt of having "fired the round that killed the condemned." Both states do have, as an alternative, lethal injection, though Utah is apparently the only state which allows the condemned to choose the method by which they will die.

The United States Bureau of Statistics reflects a decline of capital punishment beginning in the 1930s, with a short-lived abolishment in 1972 (see Furman v Georgia, 408 U.S. 238) when the Supreme Court held that it "constitute[d] cruel and unusual punishment in violation of Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments." Four years later, in the case of Gregg v Georgia (428 US 153), the Supreme Court upheld the capital punishment sentence as constitutional. Since that time, we have seen a sharp increase of executions and according to an April 2004 UK independent " Axis of Execution" article, our country is "one of four" who carry out 82% of the worlds executions and "one of two who execute child offenders."

This is hardly something to be proud of and unfortunately the issue of crime and punishment in our country continues to be problematic. According to a May 2006, report from Kings College of London, "The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world." The AP reported that, "Prisons accounted for about two-thirds of all [U.S.] inmates, or 1.4 million, while the other third, nearly 750,000, were in local jails." In other words, one-third of all incarcerated individuals in the United States have not been convicted of a crime. Furthermore, the death penalty information fact sheet reports that one-hundred-and-twenty-three death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973. Still, the incidence of homicide appears to be decreasing and inversely correlated to execution rates, suggesting (at least superficially) that the death penalty may very well be a violent crime deterrent.

Whatever the case, the United States is a seemingly unwilling zeitgeist of societys ever-present need for swift and severe retribution--thus donning the hood of the sacred executioner. Yet, who among us is truly willing to wield the executioners blade? Alas, the answer to that question is no less complex than the capital punishment debate that rages across our country.


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