The liturgy of public executions

This title, and such other morbidly graphic phrases as  the “spectacle of the scaffold”, “gallows speeches”, or the functions of “punitive rituals”,  are taken from  Michel Foucault’s book Discipline & Punish. To Justice Secretary Teofisto Guingona and Senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr., who have both recommended TV coverage of public executions, I enthusiastically endorse this  fascinating work as a guide to the formulation of a wholly modern Filipino ceremony for publicly executing criminals.

I myself have always opposed the death penalty.  I was disappointed when Congress decided to re-impose it.  I have always believed that the avowed main function of deterrence has never been sufficiently proven or validated.  And that within a grossly defective justice system as ours, its principal victims will always be the poor and the illiterate who are without the means to purchase the services of good lawyers.

But I am happy that those who believe in capital punishment are now also advocating its exhibition before as wide a public as TV can reach. I hope that televising public executions will serve to sharpen the issues, and re-open the inadequately debated question of whether a civilized state should presume to  take  the life  of any of its citizens.

I shall not review the pros and cons of the death penalty here.  I shall merely summarize Foucault’s account of why, at some point, Europeans stopped the practice of public execution. The execution itself, said Foucault,  “was not the result of some obscurely accepted law of retaliation.”  It was rather originally intended to be an aspect of the general exaltation of power, a way of affirming the tremendous control of the sovereign over his subjects.  That is why it had to be public.

“In the ceremonies of the public execution, the main character was the people, whose real and immediate presence was required for the performance.  An execution that was known to be taking place, which did so in secret, would scarcely have had any meaning.  The aim was to make an example, not only by making people aware that the lightest offence was likely to be punished, but by arousing feelings of terror by the spectacle of power letting its anger fall upon the guilty person.”

Senator Magsaysay was probably thinking of the same effect when he said recently: “It seems we have lost a sense of moral and spiritual direction as shown by the wave of criminality and the indifference of people to the truth.”  Then as now,  public executions were meant to impress upon an indifferent population the full terror of the law.  Of course, it may be argued that if that is the problem, isn’t making the justice system more credible a more  logical response?

Interestingly, it wasn’t the triumph of logical reasoning that led to the eventual banning of public executions.  It was the resulting political problems that did.  The role of the people at these public executions had always been an ambivalent one.  On one hand, they were invited to be witnesses and participants in the ritual of avenging the sovereign who was presumed to be the injured party in the crime.  On the other hand, the entire spectacle often became the occasion for the rejection of the power of the sovereign, as well as the moral rehabilitation of the condemned man in the eyes of the public.

As Foucault observed: “Preventing an execution that was regarded as unjust, snatching a condemned man from the hands of the executioner, obtaining his pardon by force, possibly pursuing and assaulting the executioners, in any case abusing the judges and causing an uproar against the sentence – all this formed part of the popular practices that invested, traversed and often overturned the ritual  of the public execution.”

Senator Magsaysay had expressed the hope that a public execution may  give convicts  “the final chance, if they opt to, to air their message to their families, to the offended parties, and to the entire Filipino people.”  It may interest him to learn that in the annals that recorded the last words of all those executed in Europe in the period studied by Foucault “no one who had died on the wheel did not accuse heaven for the misery that brought  him to the crime, reproach his judges for their barbarity, curse the minister of the altars who accompanies them and blaspheme against the God whose organ he is.”

Indeed these spectacles usually turned into their opposite — they became the opportunity for the poor and the powerless to openly defy the sovereign, identify with the condemned, and mock the authority of the entire justice system.  Criminals were transformed into heroes in these ceremonies.  And many rebellions were triggered by public executions.  As Foucault noted: “Under the protection of imminent death, the criminal could say everything and the crowd cheered.”

I therefore welcome the proposal to televise judicial executions.  I could almost visualize the basic elements of a resourceful live onboard reporting of such an event.  First there would be a backgrounder on the childhood of the condemned, and cut-to-cut interviews with his parents, his brothers and sisters, his teachers, his playmates.  Then one reporter would focus on his last months as a convict on death row – his return to God, his essential kindness, and his anguished dream for a just society that would offer opportunities to the underprivileged child that he once was.  Still another segment would probably review the trial that led to his conviction, and as an afterthought, raise some remaining ambiguous details of the case that were never quite resolved.

And before the TV audience could begin to reflect on the meaning of the event, a new folk hero is born, and the public is treated once more to the sad spectacle of movie companies frantically vying against one another for the film rights to the dead convict’s life.   I hope the resulting moral discomfort will educate all of us.


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