Killing

Fig. 1. An image of a public Saudi Arabian beheading, apparently from YouTube, via Vice News, fair use.
Fig. 1. An image of a public Saudi Arabian beheading, apparently from YouTube, via Vice News, fair use.

Perhaps it is simply because we have an image (figure 1). Or, perhaps the image being out of focus makes it seem all the more raw. Or, perhaps because the beheading of a woman accused of murder occurs in a Middle Eastern country, we can safely condemn its barbarity:

Rare video of Monday’s killing shows the woman, a Burmese resident named as Lalia Bint Abdul Muttablib Basim, screaming while being dragged along the street. Four police officers then hold the woman down before a sword-wielding man slices her head off, using three blows to complete the act.

In the chilling recording, Bashim, who was found guilty in a Saudi Sharia court of sexually abusing and murdering her seven-year-old step-daughter, is heard protesting her innocence until the very end. “I did not kill. I did not kill,” she screams repeatedly.[1]


I wonder about those who claim to speak for their god: “[The punishment] implements the rulings of God against all those who attack innocents and spill their blood. The government warns all those who are seduced into committing a similar crimes that the rightful punishment is their fate,” the Saudi Ministry of Interior said.[2] I notice that we, too, have leaders who claim direct contact with their god.[3]

I notice that our executions, increasingly conducted with the convict strapped to a gurney and administered a lethal but evidently unreliable concoction intravenously, take on the pretense of medical procedures. We can thus assume them to be sanitary and humane until, that is, they gruesomely aren’t.[4] And because to participate would violate medical ethics, no doctor will perform them.

I remember my once-favorite professor speaking of executions. He noticed that the executioner wears a hood not only so the condemned would not see who committed the final act, but so none of the witnesses would know who it is either. We are careful, he noted, to preserve that anonymity.

And he wondered, perhaps too obviously, if these killings are indeed so honorable, are indeed so righteous, then why must the executioner hide his (or her) identity?

I have not watched the video of the Saudi execution. From the photograph (figure 1), it appears that the executioner wears a hood.[5]

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan recounts the experience of killing chickens, saying he didn’t think he could do it every day. Quoting scripture, the farmer agrees, replying that no one should.[6]

Slaughterhouses insist they hire immigrants because the work is so unpleasant Americans won’t do it. They hired European immigrants when Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle,” and they hire Latin American immigrants today. But it’s a canard that Americans won’t slaughter pigs, sheep and cows. How do we know this? Because immigration to the United States was more or less banned from 1925 to 1965, and millions of pigs, sheep and cows were slaughtered during those years. But they were slaughtered by American-born workers, earning middle-class wages.[7]

In fact, slaughterhouses hire migrants—some undocumented—because the work is unskilled now and migrants are cheaper.[8] But it is part of a pattern in which the “other,” a Spanish-speaking migrant or a hooded executioner, does our killing for us. It is also part of a pattern in which a smaller and smaller portion of our population fights our wars.[9]

Killing is always so much more sanitary when other people do it, preferably outside of public view. That botched Oklahoma execution in a small room last year was witnessed by perhaps a dozen people: “[T]he actual act of executing people occurs far away from the population and the public eye, in small rooms and guarded facilities and witnessed by only a handful of souls.”[10]

We are ashamed of killing, even as we gleefully pile into war after war, even as we are one of the few nations that still uses the death penalty, even as we kill untold numbers of animals for their meat. But we put kids in scout uniforms and teach them to salute. We make them take physical education or, more blatantly, sign them up for JROTC so they’ll be in shape for military service. We sign them up for a 4-H club so they can love a farm animal and then auction it for slaughter.

And we rationalize killing. Almost desperately. When we kill prisoners, we say it is to bring closure to the friends and family of a victim. Or, “[Candy] Couch snorts when she reads about defense lawyers who claim lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. She is not religious, but she believes in God and Old Testament eye-for-an-eye justice.”[11] Never mind the commandment, also in the Old Testament, “Thou shalt not kill.[12] Couch’s response lays bare the truth: The death penalty is about vengeance, something else that, according to the Bible, is supposed to belong to the god of Abraham.[13] And if this killing is indeed about closure, “‘It’s not like, ‘Whoopee!” says Dale Alexander. ‘It’s not like a ballgame, we won, home run.'” Rather, the family’s and friends’ loss is still their loss. “They feel better. A little. Not much. It’s not the better they thought they would feel. They can hardly explain why. They exit the room with most of the ache they carried in.”[14]

It is curious that killing seems so much to involve the god of Abraham, whether in a Muslim or a Christian guise. Now, of course, we do a lot of our killing with drones controlled by far-away pilots playing video games but almost certainly committing war crimes[15] in a conflict we cannot rationally mean to win.[16] Which is to say, we kill for the sake of killing.

And as with that Saudi execution, we condemn others when they do it. They should be ashamed. As we most certainly are.

  1. [1]Harriet Salem, “Woman Is Publicly Beheaded in Saudi Arabia’s Tenth Execution of 2015,” Vice, January 15, 2015, https://news.vice.com/article/woman-is-publicly-beheaded-in-saudi-arabias-tenth-execution-of-2015
  2. [2]Harriet Salem, “Woman Is Publicly Beheaded in Saudi Arabia’s Tenth Execution of 2015,” Vice, January 15, 2015, https://news.vice.com/article/woman-is-publicly-beheaded-in-saudi-arabias-tenth-execution-of-2015
  3. [3]Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times, October 17, 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html
  4. [4]Mark Berman, “What it was like watching the botched Oklahoma execution,” Washington Post, May 2, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/05/02/what-it-was-like-watching-the-botched-oklahoma-execution/
  5. [5]Harriet Salem, “Woman Is Publicly Beheaded in Saudi Arabia’s Tenth Execution of 2015,” Vice, January 15, 2015, https://news.vice.com/article/woman-is-publicly-beheaded-in-saudi-arabias-tenth-execution-of-2015
  6. [6]Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2007).
  7. [7]Edward McClelland, “The ‘middle class’ myth: Here’s why wages are really so low today,” Salon, December 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/12/30/the_middle_class_myth_heres_why_wages_are_really_so_low_today/
  8. [8]Edward McClelland, “The ‘middle class’ myth: Here’s why wages are really so low today,” Salon, December 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/12/30/the_middle_class_myth_heres_why_wages_are_really_so_low_today/
  9. [9]James Fallows, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” Atlantic, January/February 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/12/the-tragedy-of-the-american-military/383516/
  10. [10]Mark Berman, “What it was like watching the botched Oklahoma execution,” Washington Post, May 2, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/05/02/what-it-was-like-watching-the-botched-oklahoma-execution/
  11. [11]Candace Rondeaux, “Witnessing Execution a Matter of Duty, Choice,” Washington Post, December 10, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/09/AR2006120900923.html
  12. [12]Deuteronomy 5:17 [King James Version].
  13. [13]Romans 12:19 [King James Version].
  14. [14]David Montgomery, “For murder victims’ families, witnessing execution offers hollow satisfaction,” Washington Post, November 10, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/09/AR2009110903493.html
  15. [15]Amnesty International, “‘Will I be Next?’ US Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” October 22, 2013, http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/security-and-human-rights/drones/will-i-be-next; Owen Bowcott, “UN to investigate civilian deaths from US drone strikes,” Guardian, October 25, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/25/un-inquiry-us-drone-strikes; Jonathan Turley, “United Nation’s Report Condemns The United States For Human Rights Violations, Including Blocking Prosecution Of Those Responsible For Torture,” March 28, 2014, http://jonathanturley.org/2014/03/28/united-nations-report-condemns-the-united-states-for-human-rights-violations-including-blocking-prosecution-of-those-responsible-for-torture/; Matthew Weaver, “US human rights record chastised in UN report,” Guardian, March 27, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/27/us-human-rights-record-chastised-un-report
  16. [16]David Benfell, “A Hollow War,” Not Housebroken, January 15, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7175

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