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'Hooded Horror': Death by Hanging

'Death – the last sleep?
No it is the final awakening'
- Walter Scott//

In the early hours of 30th December 2006, the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was sent to the gallows for the crimes he committed against humanity. Evidences point to the fact that he slaughtered 148 fellow countrymen, who were Shias, and other political rivals.

Historically, the death penalty was, liberally put to use in all societies to wipe out political dissent. In recent times, a death penalty is reserved for those who indulge in crimes such as pre-meditated murder, treason, and espionage. In Muslim-dominated societies 'moral policing' demands that sexual crimes such as adultery, be added to the list of crimes that qualify for a death penalty.

Hanging is the oldest method of execution in the world and traces its origin to Persia, now Iran, 2500 years ago. It continues to enjoy patronage to this day. As all the hangings were carried out publicly, it was a spectacular crime deterrent. It scored above other fond choices of the day such as beheading, stoning, crucifixion, throwing from a height and burning at the stakes.

By the standards of those early days, hanging was thought to be humane and simple. All that was required was a tree, a rope and a ladder, or a cart, to suspend the (sometimes) hapless convict. Besides, it lacked the bloody gore that was associated with beheading. The gallows then came to replace the tree while the trap door took the place of the ladder. It is a common practice to hood the prisoner before hanging, to minimise neck injuries and to diminish the agony of the witnesses. However the 'struggle behind the hood' continued. Later, a general consenses arose seeking to abolish hanging or to make it more humane.

The Evolution of the Noose

Let us take a closer peek at the intricacies of hanging as a mode of execution. The earliest method was the Short-drop hanging wherein the convict drops just a few inches and the struggling ensures that the noose gets tightened. Death occurs by strangulation, leading to asphyxia. This method continues to be employed in the Middle Eastern countries, most often, in public. Standard drop hanging is almost the same as the short-drop method. But here the executee drops to about 4-6 feet. The method was not sufficient to break the neck and the person died a slow death. Decapitation was also known to occur. Suspension hanging involves the prisoner being raised into the air by means of a crane. Here too death is ushered in by strangulation. This method continues to be popular to date in Iran and Afghanistan. The now- popular method of Long-drop Hanging is designed to break the neck and rupture the spinal cord causing instant death. A 'Hangman's fracture' occurs when the second cervical vertebra is fractured followed by the disruption of the transverse atlantal ligament. There is hypertension of the head when the prisoner falls, leading to the fracture. There are no visible expressions of agony and the pain too is minimized.

Excuses to Execute

Having gone through the nuances of hanging, the question that crops up in one’s mind is- how justifiable is the execution of a human? Can it really be excused in the name of righteous indignity?

'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' was propagated by the Code of Hammurabi and also by The Old Testament. This principle was probably suited to those times when law and order was not in place. It helped to define the limit of revenge and ensured that the retribution did not exceed the crime.

The advocates of capital punishment maintain that it is the best crime deterrent besides maximizing public safety. There is an essence of ambiguity in killing a person for killing another. 'Thou shall not kill' forms the thumb rule of all religions. By executing a pers on the law-providers of the civil society are also indulging in killing, in the guise of providing justice. As the Bible says, 'those who live by the sword shall die by it'. Several are murdered as a sequel to one murder, as we saw happen in Iraq after the death of Saddam. Retribution is fine, as long as there are no consequences. However, it is seldom so.

To Forgive Is Divine

Although it may not be practical to follow the path of least resistance, as professed by Taoism, it is important to be more compassionate to one’s enemies. It is not enough to boast about living in a civilized world, it is vital to practice being civil. If killing is a crime how can the law be party to it?

There is no sin so great that it cannot be pardoned. While it is necessary to provide alternatives to execution for punishing an individual, it is also important to provide the sentenced person a chance to reform and to serve his society. It may be apt to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi, who said,

'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and the whole world will be blind and tooth less'.

IMAGE Source-Pisanello; de: Fresken in Sant' Anastasia in Verona, Szene: Hl. Georg und die Prinzesin

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