July 19, 2002
Cruel But Not Unusual

Little Green Footballs reports:

An Iranian man convicted of raping and killing his [16-year-old] nephew will be executed by being stuffed into a sack and thrown off a cliff.

If he survives, he’ll be hanged.

Well, at least they won’t throw him off the cliff again.

This reminds me of the ancient Roman punishment for parricide (a crime which covered murder of any near relation, not just a father). The murderer was flogged, sewn up in a sack with a dog, a snake, a cock, and a monkey, and then thrown into the Tiber. Because Nero murdered his mother, stepfather, and stepbrother, among many others, the satirist Juvenal suggested that it would have taken "more than one monkey, more than one snake, and more than one sack" to punish him adequately.

Why do I mention this relatively obscure historical fact?

  • It shows that standards of civilized behavior do tend to increase slightly from century to century. Today even Iranian mullahs behave better than the Roman magistrates of two millennia ago: at least they leave the animals out of it. (I hope none of them reads this and gets any ideas.) Though progress is fitful and often imperceptible, there is some hope for the human species.
  • It illustrates what the Founding Fathers meant when they forbade "cruel and unusual punishment". They were not referring to hanging or the firing squad, still less to lethal injection, but to far more gruesome and painful punishments such as crucifixion, the iron maiden, the rack, and of course the sack.
Posted by Dr. Weevil at July 19, 2002 11:18 PM

I can't verify it, but I don't think there ever was a witch-burning in America (they were hanged instead). It was apparently considered a mercy to be hanged as opposed to being burned alive as "witches" were in Europe.

Posted by: clay waters on July 20, 2002 07:14 AM

I'm 99% certain Clay is correct. I don't think there were all that many witch-hangings here, either.

The Romans also used to have a punishment where they would stick you into a barrel, pound nails in all the way 'round--nails long enough to reach well through the staves and into the cargo, mind you--and then roll the barrel down a hill.

The Egyptians had what may have been the most gruesome punishment I've ever heard of (short of simply burning people to death) called "the canoe." They'd take you down to the Nile, put you in a canoe by the waterside, face up, and cover the top with another canoe, so you were stuck with your arms and head outside and the rest inside, unable to move much and without being able to reach your head with your arms. They'd then leave you there to die. It doesn't sound all that bad until you find out that they'd come by regularly to feed you a mixture of milk and honey, to make sure you didn't starve or die of thirst. Of course they'd pour it down your throat and over your face and head, whether you wanted it or not. Within a week or so the face and scalp were mostly eaten away by bugs, and the insects, having crawled into the boat to feed upon your dung and urine, would also have done their work on the rest of you.

Unfortunately, part of the good Dr. Weevil's reasoning supports the modernist anti-death penalty arguments about "cruel and unusual punishment," since they are based on the notion that humanity has become progressively less and less cruel, and thus in the modern age we have come to "recognize" the implicit cruelty of the death penalty.

I'm not particularly agin the death penalty. Although I don't mind efforts to raise the bar on that particular sentence to the most stringent of requirements. But I have to give those who disagree with the practice their due.

Posted by: Dean Esmay on July 21, 2002 06:37 AM

Oh, by the way, I thought historians had largely come to the conclusion that no one had ever actually used an Iron Maiden? Or did I make that up in some dream I had?

Posted by: Dean Esmay on July 21, 2002 06:37 AM

I am tempted to make a questionable remark about governments stifling creativity...

Posted by: Timothy Mason on July 22, 2002 02:52 PM