Would you want to be an executioner?

Whenever party talk veers towards the death penalty, its supporters are easily outnumbered and outshouted by its opponents.

Charles-Henri Sanson

Their arguments start out as being rational, but eventually get personal. Most of the former are based on the possibility of judicial error, which in such cases would be irreversible.

Granted, few people would like to see a man killed for a crime he didn’t commit. However, not many more would rejoice at seeing a man wrongly sentenced to life in prison either, yet calls for the abolition of imprisonment are rare among sensible people.

The right to life is usually mentioned in this context, often by those who see nothing wrong with abortion. I haven’t run any statistically significant surveys, but observation suggests that most proponents of the death penalty are opposed to abortion and vice versa, with the right to life invoked by both sides.

We can discuss this incongruity some other time, at any length you wish. However, my experience suggests that, after every rational argument pro and con has had an airing, the question in the title inevitably crops up.

That is of course a rhetorical fallacy, known as argumentum ad hominem. But hey, what’s the odd rhetorical fallacy among friends? He who is without sin… and all that.

This question is usually directed at supporters of the death penalty, a group in which I’ve often found myself, if without excessive enthusiasm. My stock reply is that I wouldn’t want to drive a sewage truck either, but I realise that someone has to.

That response is fine as far as rhetorical tricks go, but it’s too flippant to have any real meaning. It would be more serious and honest to examine my feelings, a scrutiny that could only yield one answer: no, I wouldn’t.

Under any circumstances? Well, we can come up with any number of fanciful situations, but barring such extremes, no, I wouldn’t want to execute people, under any circumstances.

That usually triggers related questions. Would you agree to shake hands with an executioner? Entertain him at your dinner table? My answers are a qualified yes and an unqualified no, for whatever that’s worth.

But now it’s time to launch a counterattack against myself. Can I imagine a situation where I’d become a soldier? Easily, is the answer to that. Shake hands with a soldier? But of course. Have him as a guest? I’d consider it an honour, if he fought for my side.

These would be the spur of the moment replies of someone who hasn’t considered the issue deeply enough. Joseph de Maistre did, and he pointed out the absurdity of that kneejerk response.

Both the executioner and the soldier, he wrote, kill legally. However, the former puts to death convicted and condemned criminals, while the latter indiscriminately kills innocent men whose only fault is wearing a different uniform.

“Of these two professional killers, the soldier and the executioner, the one is greatly honoured… . The other, on the contrary, has just as generally been declared infamous.”

Now, Maistre didn’t just support the death penalty, but regarded the executioner as the central and most essential figure in any successful realm. That may be a bit eccentric, but it’s true that, when God wasn’t just considered a figure of speech, the death penalty was never seen as cruel or unusual.

Neither Scripture nor Catholic doctrine opposed the capital punishment, but there were always reservations. Aquinas, for example, insisted that, though he supported in principle the state’s right to execute criminals in pursuit of common good, the arguments either pro or con can’t be absolute. Each case must be decided by human reason.

The same, in St Thomas’s nuanced view, applied to warfare. While he condoned just war, he still regarded killing on the battlefield as a sin – a necessary one, but a sin nonetheless, something requiring absolution.

In 1908, Pope Pius X summed up the argument in this way: “It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defence of one’s own life against an unjust aggressor.”

Lawful, yes. Moral, possibly. But what about one’s gut reaction to execution and executioners? Back come the lapidary questions, each falling down with a stone-like thud: Would you want to be an executioner or even invite one to dinner?

This brings me to one of the most famous (or infamous, if you’d rather) executioners ever, Charles-Henri Sanson (d. 1806). This colourful gentleman was in the fourth generation of his family dynasty of executioners, and there were two more generations after him.

Chevalier de Longval, as Sanson was known on the Paris party circuit, pioneered the use of the guillotine, with the help of which contraption he executed almost 3,000 people, King Louis XVI among them. That last act rendered him somewhat unpopular at society soirées, but until then his ‘de’ particle had made him socially welcome. In fact, many of the people he put to death were his friends.

(However, even such impressive numbers didn’t get Sanson into The Guinness Book of World Records. That honour, if that’s the right word, went to the NKVD executioner Vasily Blokhin, who dispatched tens of thousands with his own hand. He outdid even himself at Katyn, where he personally shot 7,000 Poles in just 28 days – hence the Guinness entry.) 

As a bit of poetic justice, Sanson’s eldest son Gabriel (d. 1792), his assistant and heir apparent, died after slipping off a scaffold as he triumphantly waved a severed head to the crowd. Teaches you not to gloat, doesn’t it?

It’s silly trying to imagine oneself in the shoes of those who lived centuries earlier. An Alexander Boot of the 18th century would have had different sensibilities and ideas from the present-day version. But just this once: if miraculously transported as I am now to Paris circa 1793, would I have wanted to break bread with Sanson?

Honestly? No, I wouldn’t, and don’t try asking me to explain. I ought to keep this irrational reaction in mind next time I present rational arguments in favour of the death penalty. Which I probably shall.

5 thoughts on “Would you want to be an executioner?”

  1. Alternatives to the death penalty as presented quite often flawed. Life in prison in most locales means 20 years. Life without parole means normal parole but not release at some point.

    That situation too where a condemned man kills a member of prison staff or another inmate. How to further to punish such a person?

  2. Might I recommend a feature film titled ‘The Life Of David Gale’ (starring Kevin Spacey) it’s plot revolves around the death penalty debate. I doubt you’ll approve of its Leftist messaging; but it’s an interesting meditation on the topic nonetheless.

  3. Perhaps the demographic is too small, but what are the opinions of those who have committed murder? What percentages are for or against the death penalty? We have had many news reports that in order to be accepted into certain gangs prospective members must kill an innocent person. I do not know if that is true – it seems plausible. How do those chaps feel about it? It seems that they would be willing to shake the hand of or share a meal with an executioner.

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