Victor Hugo enters the American debate on the death penalty

Widespread use of the death penalty is one of the ways that the US distances itself from other developed countries. (Not having universal health coverage is another.) The Economist reports that the death penalty is beginning to fade in the US because juries are unwilling to condemn people to death, public reaction to bungled executions, and problems in procuring drugs to kill, but it’s still used in many states, particularly in the South.

Victor Hugo may well be wiser than any living American or anybody living anywhere, and this is what he has to say on the subject.

“A scaffold, when it is erected and prepared, has indeed a profoundly disturbing effect. We may remain more or less open-minded on the subject of the death penalty, indisposed to commit ourselves, so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But to do so is to be so shaken that we are obliged to take our stand for or against. Joseph de Maistre approved of the death penalty, Cesar de Beccaria abominated it. The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name is vengeance; it is not neutral, nor does it allow us to remain neutral. He who sees it shudders in the most confounding dismay. All social questions achieve their finality around that blade. The scaffold is an image. It is not merely a framework, a machine, a lifeless mechanism of wood, iron, and rope. It is as though it were a being having its own dark purpose, as though the framework saw, the machine listened, the mechanism understood; as though that arrangement of wood and iron and rope expressed a will. In the hideous picture which its presence evokes it seems to be most terribly a part of what it does. It is the executioner’s accomplice; it consumes, devouring flesh and drinking blood. It is a kind of monster created by the judge and the craftsman; a spectre seeming to live an awful life born of the death it deals.

Death belongs only to God. What right have men to lay hands on a thing so unknown?”


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