Reflections on the guillotine essay

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The Death Penalty

Add to cart to save with this special offer. If you Buy It Now, you'll only be purchasing this item. If you'd like to get the additional items you've selected to qualify for this offer, close this window and add these items to your cart. Instead of saying,as we always have, that the death penalty is first of all a necessity, and afterwards that it isadvisable not to talk about it, we should first speak of what the death penalty really is, and onlythen decide if, being what it is, it is necessary.

Speaking for myself, I believe the death penalty is not only useless but profoundly harmful, and Imust record this conviction here before proceeding to the subject itself. It would not be honest toallow it to appear as if I had arrived at this conclusion solely as a result of the weeks of inquiryand investigation I have just devoted to the question.

But it would be equally dishonest toattribute my conviction to sentimentality alone. I stand as far as possible from that position ofspineless pity in which our humanitarians take such pride, in which values and responsibilitieschange places, all crimes become equal, and innocence ultimately forfeits all rights. I do notbelieve, contrary to many of my illustrious contemporaries, that man is by nature a social animal;the opposite, I think, is probably nearer the truth.

I believe only that man cannot now live outsidea society whose laws are necessary to his physical survival, which is a very different thing. Ibelieve that responsibility must be established according to a reasonable and effective scale ofvalues by society itself.

But the law finds its final justification in the benefit it provides, or doesnot provide, the society of a given place and time. For years I have not been able to regard thedeath penalty as anything but a punishment intolerable to the imagination: a public sin of slothwhich my reason utterly condemns. I was nevertheless prepared to believe that my imaginationinfluenced my judgment. But during these weeks of research, I have found nothing which hasmodified my reasoning, nothing which has not, in all honesty, reinforced my original conviction.

On the contrary, I have found new arguments to add to those I already possessed; today I share 3. Arthur Koestlers conclusion without qualification: capital punishment is a disgrace to oursociety which its partisans cannot reasonably justify. It is well known that the major argument of those who support capital punishment is its value asan example.

We do not chop off heads merely to punish their former owners, but to intimidate,by a terrifying example, those who might be tempted to imitate their actions. Society does nottake revenge—society merely protects itself. We brandish the newly severed head so that thenext prospective murderer may therein read his future and renounce his intentions. All of whichwould indeed be an impressive argument if one were not obliged to remark: 1 That societyitself does not believe in the value of this much advertised example. First of all, then, society does not believe its own words.

If it did, we would be shown the heads. Yet it is well known on the contrary, that in France executionsno longer take place in public—they are perpetrated in prison yards before an audience limited tospecialists. It is less well known why this should be so, and since when it has been so. The lastpublic execution took place in —the guillotining of Weidmann, a murderer several timesover whose exploits had brought him much notoriety. On the morning of his execution, a hugecrowd rushed to Versailles; many photographers attended the ceremony and were permitted totake photographs from the time Weidmann was exposed to the crowd until the moment he wasdecapitated.

A few hours later Paris-Soir published a full page of pictures of this appetizingevent, and the good people of Paris were able to discover that the lightweight precisioninstrument used by their executioner was as different from the scaffold of their history books as aJaguar is from an old de Dion-Bouton. The officials connected with the event and thegovernment itself, contrary to every hope, regarded this excellent publicity in a very dim light,declaring that the press had only appealed to the most sadistic impulses of its readers.

It wastherefore decided that the public would no longer be permitted to witness executions, anarrangement which, shortly afterwards, made the work of the Occupation authoritiesconsiderably easier. Logic, in this case, was not on the side of the lawmakers. Logically, in fact, they should havevoted a medal to the editor of Paris-Soir and encouraged his staff to do still better next time. Ifpunishment is to be exemplary, then the number of newspaper photographs must be multiplied,the instrument in question must be set up on a platform in the Place de la Concorde at two in theafternoon, the entire population of the city must be invited, and the ceremony must be televisedfor those unable to attend.

Either do this, or stop talking about the value of an example.

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How cana furtive murder committed by night in a prison yard serve as an example? At best it canperiodically admonish the citizenry that they will die if they commit murder; a fate which canalso be assured them if they do not. For punishment to be truly exemplary, it must be terrifying. Tuaut de la Bouverie, representative of the people in and a partisan of public execution,spoke more logically when he declared to the National Assembly: "There must be terriblespectacles in order to control the people. Today there is no spectacle at all—only a penalty known to everyone by hearsay and, at longintervals, the announcement of an execution couched in soothing formulas.

How shall a futurecriminal, in the very act of committing his crime, keep in mind a threat which has been madeincreasingly abstract by every possible effort? And if it is really desirable that the incipientmurderer preserve a vision of his ultimate fate that might counterbalance and ultimately reversehis criminal intent, then why do we not burn the reality of that fate into his sensibility by everymeans of language and image within our power?

Mia (Australia)’s review of Reflections on the Guillotine

Instead of vaguely evoking a debt that someone has paid to society this morning, would it not bemore politic—if we are interested in setting an example—to profit by this excellent opportunityto remind each taxpayer in detail just what sort of punishment he can expect? Instead of saying,"If you kill someone you will pay for it on the scaffold," would it not be more politic—if we areinterested in setting an example—to say instead: "If you kill someone, you will be thrown intoprison for months or even years, torn between an impossible despair and a constantly renewedfear, until one morning we will sneak into your cell, having taken off our shoes in order tosurprise you in your sleep, which has at last overcome you after the nights anguish.

We willthrow ourselves upon you, tie your wrists behind your back, and with a pair of scissors cut awayyour shirt collar and your hair, if it should be in the way. Because we are perfectionists we willlash your arms together with a strap so that your body will be arched to offer unhampered accessto the back of your neck. Then we will carry you, one man holding you up under each arm, yourfeet dragging behind you, down the long corridors, until, under the night sky, one of theexecutioners will at last take hold of the back of your trousers and throw you down on a board,another will make sure your head is in the lunette, and a third one will drop, from a height of twometers twenty centimeters, a blade weighing sixty kilograms that will slice through your necklike a razor.

Instead of bragging, with our characteristic pretentious ignorance, that wehave invented a swift and humane [2] means of killing those condemned to death, we shouldpublish in millions of copies, read out in every school and college, the eyewitness accounts andmedical reports that describe the state of the body after execution. These courageous physicians, having examined,in the interests of science, the bodies of the condemned after execution, have considered it theirduty to sum up their terrible observations thus: "If we may be permitted to present our opinion onthis subject, such spectacles are horribly painful.


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The blood rushes from the vessels according tothe rhythm of the severed carotids, then coagulates. The muscles contract and their fibrillation isstupefying. The intestine undulates and the heart produces a series of irregular, incomplete, andconvulsive movements. The mouth tightens, at certain moments, into a dreadful grimace. It istrue that the eyes of a decapitated head are immobile, the pupils dilated; fortunately, they cannotsee, and if they exhibit no signs of disturbance, none of the characteristic opalescence of acadaver, they at least have no capacity for movement: their transparency is that of life, but theirfixity is mortal.

All this may last minutes, even hours, in a healthy subject: death is notimmediate. Thus each vital element survives decapitation to some extent. There remains, for 5. We can, in fact, counton its power as an example, its capacity to intimidate. What is to prevent us from adding to it thereports of witnesses that further authenticate the observations of medical men.

If the severedhead of Charlotte Corday is supposed to have blushed under the executioners hand, we shallhardly be surprised after examining the accounts of more recent observers. Here is how oneassistant executioner, hardly likely to cultivate the sentimental or romantic aspects of his trade,describes what he has been obliged to see: "There was one wild man, suffering from a real fit ofdelirium tremens, whom we had to throw under the knife. The head died right away. But thebody literally sprang into the basket, where it lay struggling against the cords that bound it. Twenty minutes later, in the cemetery, it was still shuddering.

Knowing the depths of his heart and his true regard for his wife,whose sentiments were genuinely Christian, we said to him, For the love of this woman,commune with yourself a moment before you die.


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And the condemned man consented,communing at length before the crucifix, and afterwards scarcely seemed to notice our presence. When he was executed, we were not far from him; his head fell onto the trough in front of theguillotine, and the body was immediately put into the basket. But contrary to custom, the basketwas closed before the head could be put in. The assistant carrying the head had to wait a momentuntil the basket was opened again. And during that brief space of time, we were able to see thetwo eyes of the condemned man fixed on us in a gaze of supplication, as if to ask ourforgiveness.

Instinctively we traced a sign of the cross in order to bless the head, and then theeyelids blinked, the look in the eyes became gentle again, and then the gaze, which had remainedexpressive, was gone. But at least those eyes that "remained expressive" need no interpretation. I could cite many other eyewitness accounts as hallucinatory as these. But as for myself, I hardlyneed or know how to go further.