The practice of capital punishment has long been controversial, as it is an ultimate expression of collective power over the individual as well as an irreparable harm if carried out in error. Those who oppose the death penalty may view it as a human rights violation, as unnecessarily cruel and degrading. They may cite the state’s incompetence in actually carrying out executions, the suffering of the condemned person’s family, the decades that many prisoners spend on death row, and the refusal to attempt rehabilitation of the criminal. Those who support it may believe that the worst crimes constitute a forfeiture of one’s human rights. They may argue that keeping someone alive in prison for life is more cruel and costly than a swift execution. Additional arguments in favor include retribution, deterrence, and certainty that the offender will victimize no one else.

In contemporary terms, the above arguments against capital punishment would be considered liberal, while the above arguments for it would be considered conservative. But both sets come from a distinctly modern worldview that is primarily concerned with the condemned individual. From a reactionary perspective, conservatives and liberals frequently appear to be two sides of the same coin, and their views of capital punishment are no exception. Modernism also manifests in the false dilemma between current capital punishment practices and complete abolition. A reactionary approach is more concerned with societal effects, and will broaden the consideration of practices to include pre-modern forms of execution which might be restored in a neo-traditional society. We will take the novel approach of explaining the effects of capital punishment on a social order through the lens of ritual magick.

A Brief History of Capital Punishment

Nearly all societies have put criminals to death, with the practice going back before the beginning of recorded history. While restitution and ostracism were frequently sufficient for punishing criminals, executions occasionally occurred in order to insure incapacitation of the worst criminals and demonstrate to other tribes that a society would defend itself by necessary means. The person executed was not necessarily the person responsible for a crime, as early systems of tribal arbitration were based on collective responsibility. What mattered was that someone pay blood for blood in order to prevent a blood feud from spiraling out of control. As tribes became nations, they expanded and conquered neighboring tribes and nations. Various classes of people emerged in these empires, and arbitration systems became codified and formalized in legal systems. Examples of this include the Code of Hammurabi, Draco’s laws, and the Pentateuch.[1]

Ancient execution methods were deliberately painful in nature, and some were designed to include the community in the killing of the condemned. Most executions took place in public to make an example of the criminals, demonstrate the power of rulers, and provide a spectacle.[2] The Roman crucifixion is the best known of these methods due to its role in the founding of Christianity, but there were many torturous methods of ending a life, such as loosing wild animals upon a person, cooking someone alive, lapidation, and scaphism.

In medieval and early modern times, the death penalty was used for many offenses. For instance, historians estimate that 72,000 people were executed under Henry VIII of England (r. 1509–1547). In his reign, the Buggery Act 1533 made sodomy a capital crime, and it remained so until 1835.[3] A moral panic concerning witchcraft beginning in the 15th century led to many unjust executions. Common methods included the breaking wheel, burning at the stake, and being hanged, drawn, and quartered. Meanwhile, blood feuds continued to occur but were more regulated, as in the Norse althings. Over time, dueling became a refined version of feuding and trial by combat survived as a remnant of the ancient ways.

The number of capital offenses under English law increased to 220 by 1800, and included many types of property crimes which are treated rather leniently in current law, such as cutting down a cherry tree in an orchard, petty theft, shoplifting.[4,5,6] Jurors responded with jury nullification, while judges would value property below the statutory level for capital punishment in order to spare people.[6]

As the modern nation-state took shape, standing police forces and state-run penitentiaries became common, as did the association of justice with theories of rights. Though opposition to the death penalty can be traced at least as far back as the 12th century Jewish legal scholar Moses Maimonides[7], this view became more common in the Enlightenment era. Cesare Beccaria analyzed capital punishment and called for its abolition in his treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764).[8] Jeremy Bentham also called for abolition on utilitarian grounds.[9]

The overall trend in the West since the 18th century, and especially since the 20th century, has been toward executions which are less painful for the condemned and less public. This was the reason for the development of the guillotine in France, the abolition of drawing and quartering in Britain, the introduction of gassing and electrocution in the United States, and the replacement of slow suffocation hanging with drop hanging that breaks the spinal cord. American executions would later be performed mostly by lethal injection. Beginning in the 20th century, death in general moved out of public view in the West. While other deaths increasingly occurred inside of hospitals, executions took place inside prisons. The last formal public executions occurred in 1868 in Britain, in 1936 in the US, and in 1939 in France, though small numbers of witnesses are still allowed to voluntarily attend.[10,11]

Many death sentences were carried out in the 20th century for political and martial purposes, such as suppressing dissidents and discouraging lapses in military discipline. For example, during the Great Terror of 1937–38, Joseph Stalin’s regime had more than one million Soviet citizens killed, most by shooting.[12] The number of capital punishments carried out for light or even invented charges bolstered the abolitionist cause.

Since World War II, there has been a trend toward eliminating the death penalty. 102 countries have done so, six only execute under special circumstances, and 32 have not carried out a death sentence in the past decade. As of 2018, the United States is the only Western country to retain the death penalty, with the military, federal government, and 31 states having death penalty statutes.[13]

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