Execution — An Orwellian Reading of the Capital Punishment

Based on his Burmese days, George Orwell writes an autobiographical short story titled ‘A Hanging’. In this story, what is focused on is the judicial hanging of an unnamed man of Indian origin. The story is concerned with the man’s being marched to the gallows under heavy security, of the tense atmosphere that prevails, the moment of the actual hanging and the various comments made by the officials as an afterword to the course of play.

As the prisoner is frog-marched to the gallows, a dog appears from a corner and it starts jumping at the prisoner in familiar greeting. The dog keeps on at the procession, and is ordered to be held back. The dog is never identified as being owned by the prisoner, but the text strongly suggests a close relationship between the two. The moment the man is hung, and as his body hangs loose under the platform on which the gallows stand, the dog runs up to the prisoner – now dead – sniffs at him and retreats with a whimper.

Eric Arthur Blair; or, George Orwell

Eric Arthur Blair; or, George Orwell

The narrator – presumably Orwell’s persona – is part of the ‘law-enacting’ official machinery. As he walks behind the prisoner to the gallows, the procession comes across a puddle of water in the middle of the way. Here, the prisoner steps aside to avoid the puddle. At this point, the narrator has an epiphany which re-locates his subjectivity from the thereunto detached, aloof composure he assumes. With the conscious move made by the prisoner in avoiding the puddle, the narrator reflects as to how wrong a hanging is – as to how ethically and morally depraved it is to consciously put to death a man whose heart is beating as well as any other; whose reflexes are functioning and whose life is yet vigorous and healthy.

After the man is put to death, the chief official in charge of the hanging sighs in relief – his relief stems from the fact that the prisoner was killed with the ‘first attempt’. There are times, we are told, where the hanged does not die the first time around. A surgeon, he adds, sometimes has to go underneath the scaffold and pull the hanged man from his legs in order to make him breathe the last. There are other times, he further notes, where technical flaws cause a delay in the death-meting process. One who is successfully noosed at one go, therefore, is considered a moment of relief.

The need to enforce the capital punishment and the endorsement of its necessity has been raised as a point of debate from time to time. In the most recent past, the Kahawatte murder cases in Sri Lanka, various cases of rape and child abuse (on which, not to mention, the collective mainstream media thrived) as well as ‘bigger enough’ news stories such as the Delhi rape victim has brought the ‘capital punishment debate’ into the fray. As I have written earlier to this very space, capital punishment cannot be justified on any grounds as an expedient to crime; and it should definitely not be thus adopted in a situation where the law and the law enforcing mechanisms lack in efficacy and transparency as it is in Sri Lanka. The law in Sri Lanka is not equal to all; nor are all citizens equal in its face. With a state machinery that is politicized to the core and with no independent Police (and other primary offices of law enforcement), the enforcement of capital punishment can be a cardinal error in policy.

Orwell’s position in the short story cited above is an ethical concern from a humanitarian standpoint. The ethical and moral judgment is meted in a way where it reflects on the different positions of the several stakeholders at the hanging. For the detached, official (and Orwell’s persona suggests he is a bit holier-than-thou to the others) the insensitivity and lack of empathy in the judicial long arm is clearly visible. From an official’s view point, in hanging the man lies, his ‘duty’; a duty yet which blinds him to the moral depravity of office.

The awaiting noose

The awaiting noose

The relief the official feels at the hanging being efficient is a revealing moment – for, here is a man who is unsettled by a misfired execution and for whom the clinical finishing off of a man’s life is therefore the desired result. The guilt and exasperation he feels at the possible ‘misfiring’ of the execution is a suggestion that the official, too, is unnerved by his ‘duty’; and who, therefore, takes refuge in the fact that he is performing a ‘duty’ to keep his wits straight. The one person who is gleeful and unperturbed is the young lieutenant/soldier – an agent, as Orwell seems to suggest, who has been brainwashed to be indifferent to the ethical debate.

Penal policy has to seek as to how ‘recyclable’ the human spirit and human resource is. A prison sentence can only be justified if it serves the good of both the society and the condemned. As the famous wall of that perniciously infamous dungeon spells it: “Prisoners, too, are human”. Then, why shouldn’t the policy and the purchase suggest it so?