When the language of death disguises reality

January 19, 2007 at 1:55 pm Leave a comment

Execution. Death penalty. Capital punishment. Every phrase we have for the act is a euphemism. Sometimes we give a term for the method used: hanging, beheading, electric chair. We avoid the words killing and slaughtering, though they describe the act more precisely. Why? Because the word has connotations we prefer not to associate with these deaths; because the word risks stirring unwanted emotions.

The news tells us that Saddam Hussein was executed, not slaughtered, just as, during the first Gulf War, we were told (in the passive voice) that there “has been collateral damage.” Just as, during the current war, we are told that there “have been civilian casualties”. It’s an odd situation when we choose words not by their meaning but for their lack of connotations. What are we afraid of?

Slaughtering could be applied in the Saddam case. It is used elsewhere to describe the efficient, lawful, killing-behind-closed-doors of animals; to apply it to a similar event wouldn’t demand a redraft of the dictionary. The problem is that we’d rather avoid using a term which regards humans as equivalent to animals. We think that by banning this linguistically we ban it from happening. The Newspeak of killing hides the truth.

But isn’t an execution, unlike a slaughter, just? The truth is in the dates: Saddam Hussein (1937-2006). Scheduled before the New Year for the benefit of Iraq’s beleaguered Prime Minister, his death was a news event, not justice.

To see any execution as “just” requires blinkered logic. Justice is nothing if not the insertion of a moral ending to a life story. According to justice, criminals aren’t killed for their benefit; they’re killed for ours, so that when we review their life, we find the ending appropriate. But when one story ends in justice, the rest of the stories that comprise a life end with a sudden injustice. Relationships, learning processes, personal journeys (everything that carries on during a prison sentence) end too. Real lives don’t follow the neat plotline of a fable. Yet legal systems across the world apply the logic of Aesop. Why? For the show, for the news event. The language reflects this.

True, modern executioners are clinical; they perform the deed away from the public; they, for example, give a sedative before a lethal injection. Yet, in doing so, they miss the point. The “humane” measures they employ would not have been out of place at Auschwitz (Hoess, commandant of the camp, wrote of Zyklon B: “I was relieved to think that … the victims would be spared suffering until their last moment came.”) But the Nazis’ victims were degraded, humiliated and terrified. Executions, like their associated language, give a charade of humanity for the benefit of witnesses, but, at the centre of the display, people are treated like animals.

Saddam Hussein played along well with the show. Because he refused to panic, and refused to wear a hood, the event seemed so fitting that Fox News was inspired to put up huge “before and after” pictures on its website. Saddam played the self-righteous tyrant to the end, but, unusually, it was the audience who gave the game away. By taunting and jeering, they reminded us of what we should have remembered. Executions are squalid, degrading and unjust. Change the headlines: Saddam Hussein was slaughtered today.

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Entry filed under: Varsity.

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