How can a nation call itself civilized if it executes its own citizens?
The story goes like this. A famous scientist whom you’ve likely never heard of was in China for several years excavating a famous archaeological site that you certainly have heard of. During that time, he felt the need, as we all do now and then, to hold in his hand a defleshed human skull. It would be nice to have available the skull of a modern human, in order to compare it with the skulls of not-so-modern humans he was busily digging up.
So he inquired.
He asked local officials and notables who might be able to help him with such a thing. Perhaps a physician or a teacher would know where there was a skull he could borrow. Eventually, word got beyond the small village he was working in, and in the fullness of time, someone who was able to help heard of his request. It was the regional sheriff.
So one day, the scientist was called away from the excavation site because the sheriff had just arrived. He took the path down to the where the village road crossed by his house, and there was the sheriff standing across the yard by an ox-drawn cart.
“Are you the bone doctor?”
“The one digging the old caves?”
“You wanted bones? I’ve got them for you.” He motioned towards the cart with his chin.
And the scientist walked over to the Sheriff and the cart, thinking … there must be a lot of bones in there to require such a cart. As he got close enough, there was a bit of a smell, then as he got even closer, there was a bit of a sight. Inside the simple wooden cart were the bodies of a half dozen or so dead men.
“Prisoners. Executed. You may have them.”
The scientist was horrified, mortified, and totally WTFified. He was hoping that some doctor or teacher would have a teaching skull that he might borrow. He had no idea that he would be presented by local authorities with a veritable pile of actual recently dead people. Having anything to do with this would be against all ethics, and the fact that he considered the ethics is a positive statement about anthropology, because this was decades before IRB review of research.
From experience, he knew that there was no easy way to refuse this assistance without making people feel very badly, and damaging his network of contacts that had, inadvertently but quite effectively yet ghoulishly, served him in this case. But he simply could not accept these bodies. It was out of the question.
Then, gazing into the cart of carnage, he noticed something that would easily get him out of this, with no one losing face.
“There are no heads,” he said, staring down at the decapitated corpses, hoping desperately that there was not a bag of heads somewhere around that he had not yet spied.
“No heads. The prisoners were executed. The heads cut off.”
“Well, then, I don’t have much use for them. I need the heads.”
Then, suddenly realizing the potential implications of what he had just said, he added, “And they have to be processed … cleaned and prepared … just right, or they are of use. Only an expert can do that.”
He repeated that statement a few times using different terms, for “process” and “cleaned” and “professional” and so on, to avoid any confusion. In the end, he was confident that he had made it clear. Unless the bones consisted of skulls, and the skulls professionally prepared for use in an anatomy or medical school class or something similar, he had no use for them.
The sheriff shrugged, not really caring one way or anther because he was, after all, only a few kilometers off of his route to the graveyard where the bodies would be dumped, said his good bye’s and left.
And the scientist, confident that he would not be served up any more dead prisoners, returned to his excavation.
A month or so passed, and there was no more talk of skulls and bones for comparative uses. The scientist resigned himself to the fact that he would have to wait until he returned to the capitol, where he would have access to a medical school, to make his one-on-one comparisons between a modern human and this newly discovered “ape-man.” Which was all well and good. It was a crazy idea anyway.
Then, the sheriff arrived again, and the scientist was called from his work to greet him. On the way he asked his assistant, “Did he bring dead bodies again?”
“No, he did not,” was the reply, which relieved him. So when he saw the sheriff he greeted him warmly, and offered tea.
“Thank you, but no. I have no time. Perhaps another day,” said the sheriff, from his place standing on the front porch of the scientist’s dwelling. “But I have something for you.”
And the sheriff pointed with his chin over his shoulder across the yard, where the old carnage cart was parked, two oxen dozing at the yoke and a half dozen men sitting in the back, anxiously observing the doctor and the sheriff, and bound with thick ropes.
“Prisoners,” the sheriff said.
“Prisoners?” the scientist said, comprehension utterly evading him.
“You process them the way you like. I’ll come by tomorrow to pick up the oxen and the cart.”
And with that the sheriff strode off to carry out other important business.
That was China, where most people seem to live, and it turns out, where most of the people who are executed these days are executed. There is an effort to change that. NPR has the story. The number executed in china is
… believed to be nearly as much as all other countries combined. The human-rights group Amnesty International says China executed more than 1,700 people in 2008.
Legal experts are watching the case of a man in southern China who was sentenced to death three times — and then spared execution three times — to see whether recent legal reforms will save his life.
In 1983, Beijing wanted to punish criminals faster, so it gave provincial courts the final say over executions. It took back that prerogative three years ago.
It should be noted, and it is rather annoying that the NPR article does not (nor does Amnesty International rhetoric, apparently), that the rate of execution in China is lower than other countries. Iran and Singapore execute more people per capita. China, unlike the United States, does not execute people under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.
Prisoners are injected with poison or shot. The event is not supposed to be public but it seemingly is at least on some occassions. Details, statistics, etc. are a state secret, although the family of the executed individual is notified after the execution is completed. If the execution is carried out by shooting the prisoner, this is done with a single rifle bullet to the head. The family is generally charged for the bullet. High officials and notables are executed with lethal injection, which is considered to be easier for the prisoner. (source)
Here is a moving and disturbing description of an execution in Zhengzhou in 1990.
A law review article by James Liebman (2007) asks the question: Does “…the claim of irreparably fallible death penalty decisionmaking applies to the Supreme Court itself”? Liebman argues that ”
…the best evidence that human institutions cannot cope with the enormity of capital decisions is the Court’s own stance on the penalty. For forty years, the Court has recognized the need to set complex constitutional standards to govern frontline death penalty decisionmaking and yet has refused to apply those standards to review the resulting decisions and patterns of decisions, instead shunting off that responsibility to the very actors the Court claims the constitutional need to regulate.
Liebman’s article is quite interesting and differs from the usual discussions of the death penalty as a deterrence. This, looking at the fallibility of the system, does seem to be the new trend, and I suppose that is good. But I prefer another argument. If your child is sent home from daycare because he bites another kid, do you bite him? No, I didn’t think so. Now, why is that?
Let’s beat the Chinese in the race to civilization. Put an end to this practice in the United States now.
Liebman, James S. (2007). Slow dancing with death: The supreme court nd capital punishment, 1963-2006 Columbia Law Review, 107 (1), 1-130