Tuesday, November 4, 2008

You Without Sin

There are conflicting stories about who, exactly, was stoned to death recently in the southern port city of Kismayo, Somalia.

According to the local authorities, who buried the victim up to her neck in the middle of a soccer stadium and stood guard with automatic weapons while 50 men threw rocks at her head, she was a 23 year old adulteress who had confessed to the crime and volunteered to accept her fate under Sharia Law.

According to Amnesty International, who report that at one point the victim was dug out of the hole in order to determine if she was still alive and then returned to the hole for further stoning, she was a 13 year old rape-victim who pleaded for her life before a crowd of as many as 1000 people.

No cameras were allowed, but print and radio reports have surfaced, corroborating her pleas and the size of the crowd, but leaving her age in dispute. In the excitement and confusion of the spectacle, a boy may have been shot dead.

It is easy to point to a story like this and feel incredibly superior, but stoning and public execution is a part our shared heritage. It is the uphill battle for human rights that is historically anomalous, and progress should not be taken for granted.

Stoning is an ancient method of execution enshrined in Mosaic Law - in the bible, God commands the Hebrews to stone blasphemers. Of course, in the New Testament, Jesus famously discredits the practice. Pilgrims to Mecca symbolically stone the devil every year. Iran has been under fire for decades concerning many problems with their human rights record, and stories of stoning continue to pop up.

Although we associate public displays of state-sanctioned cruelty with backwards societies and unwell polities, the most advanced civilizations have practiced the most outlandish judicial death-rites. Public execution is as old as the law itself: in Hammurabi's code, death was the penalty for twenty five separate offenses. Murder was not one of them. The Roman punishment for a parricide was to sew the perpetrator in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a viper, and an ape, and then to submerge the lot in water. The first Christian Emperor, Constantine, banned crucifixition and all other cruel methods of execution, but this did not prevent executions in Europe of the Dark Ages from reverting to some of the most hideous methods ever conceived. Even after Chrisitanity took hold, a form of execution was considered to be spiritually redeeming in proportion to the suffering one endured while dying -- hence burning at the stake.

The climb up out of public torture and execution has been a long and inconsistent one, and of course, the project is neither nearing completion nor certain to make further progress. William the Conqueror personally believed that no man should die by the hand of another outside of battle and ruled accordingly. His enlightenment was not contagious, and after his death it was back to business as usual.

Punishment is always an unpleasant affair, and the punisher always comes off worse to third parties. Our own prison population is the largest on the planet, and if it is true that you can judge a nation by the condition of such facilities, we don't look especially good. Our death penalty is applied illogically, unevenly, and betrays a deep and abiding racism in our judicial system.

But surely we can all agree, no one should be stoned.