Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Symbolism of the Execution Gurney - We Worship the God of Deterrence

{{{A typical US execution gurney - poison is injected into the prisoner as he/she is strapped to this.}}}

(For non-native English speakers, vocabulary is defined below the passage)
When Lenny Bruce quipped: “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses,” he did not seem to realize that the cross had existed as a symbol for many ancient peoples, generations before it was appropriated as the symbol of the Catholic Church. To ancient peoples, in fact, a cruciform image had been a type of ideogram representing the tree.
The horizontal line in the cross was the earth, the lower bar the roots which receive nutrients from the ground and the upper bar the trunk and canopy that stretch into the sky. The tree was considered a bridge between the earth and the sky, the lower and the higher, the animal and the spiritual. Other mythical folks had dangled or died on trees (Odin for example) and all of this could not have been missed by early Christians in their appropriation of the traditional cross symbol for their own religious movement. Therefore, if Jesus had been executed in some other form, who knows what would be dangling from the necks of little Catholic kids now.
So what was going through the heads of some design firm when they chose, basically, a cruciform structure for the common American execution gurney? Was this a tip of the hat to Lenny Bruce? If we execute any messiahs in the near future we are back on track symbolically and will not have to worry about dangling non-symbolically-laden methods of execution around our necks?
Well, frankly, I think Catholic school kids should start wearing this around their necks, and I think that, essentially, everyone in contemporary America should wear this around his/her neck. This is, indeed, our God, The God of Deterrence; whether He is effective or not, He is the God we turn to the most in our daily lives and social operations.
The only legitimate rationale or justification for punishment is that it is supposed to act as a deterrent to prevent future acts of harm. Without possible punishments hanging over every one of our heads, it is felt that folks would feel that they have license to commit any crime or act of harm that might come to mind. 
Punishment as an act of deterrence is probably the most used and least investigated response in our society. Even severely mentally ill people, people who suffer from schizophrenia, are routinely punished in our legal system as if they are ‘responsible’ for their actions, because of the basic fear that if we allow someone to get away with a crime this will give license to others to do the same thing. To revisit a story Foucault told, it did not matter to the French that Roger Damiens was severely mentally ill; he had tried to kill the king, so he had to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Of course only a mentally ill person would want to kill a king, since a mentally sound person would realize that another king just as stupid and corrupt would come along, but that did not matter. Damiens had to be tortured to death as a form of deterrence to anyone who might consider this in the future, even though only mentally unbalanced people immune to deterrence might consider future assassinations.
Therefore we see that retribution or punishment as a form of deterrence is like a fixed action pattern in humanity. The male red-bellied stickleback fish will attack anything red during mating season whether it makes sense to attack it or not (sometimes they attack red-colored stones), and any time there is an act of harm, we attack someone, anyone, because nature blindly stuck this fixed action pattern into us for some basic survival value, regardless of how wasteful and inaccurate it might be in truly eliminating harmful behavior. 
Do we take action to help children who live in violent and economically deprived neighborhoods so that they will not be molded into future criminals? No. Why should we, our God of Deterrence is unquestioned. New York City just unveiled plans to build a $50 million “police bunker” in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx. Do not build businesses where people can work in that neighborhood, do not fund creative social programs to eliminate poverty, build a bunker where cops have recreational and training facilities to fight people who are socially engineered into lives of crime.
For one day (of rest) each week, we worship a Son of God who was a radical pacifist and advocated love in response to those who harm us; but, the six other days we shield ourselves behind a corrupt and inhumane legal system through which 1% of our entire population is now incarcerated and through which numerous companies profit while crime flourishes.  The execution gurney is definitely the symbol that little kids in America should be wearing around their necks.
Vocabulary:
symbolism - when an object represents a concept
execution - when the government kills a person after a legal process

to worship - to pray to, to honor as a God
a gurney - a stretcher or cot usually with wheels on it to transport people who are ill; in this case a hospital gurney was transformed into a device on which someone can be tied down so that he/she can be executed with poison 
deterrence - the belief that if you punish a person for doing something wrong, other people will be too afraid to do the same thing
to be strapped to - to be tied down to; a strap is a long piece of leather that can be used to tie or hold a person from moving or escaping
to quip - to make a short,humorous statement
Lenny Bruce - he was an amazing American comedian (1960s) who was frequently arrested in the United States because his jokes were considered too dirty or vulgar and many people claimed to be offended (emotionally hurt) by his statements. In this quote Bruce makes fun of the symbol that Christians use in their religion - he basically asks, "How can you accept the method of your God's execution as a symbol you might wear around your neck? What if Jesus had been killed in the electric chair - would you wear an electric chair around your neck?"

to be appropriated - to be borrowed from, to be taken from
cruciform - something is cruciform if it is in the shape of a cross
an ideogram - a type of written character that represents a thing or idea
a horizontal line is a straight line from side to side  _________________
the canopy of the tree is the part with the leaves that extends up from the trunk
mythical - only existing in mythology or religious stories
to dangle - to hang
a design firm - design company; I tried to discover who had invented the execution gurney, but could not find anyone. I am assuming some company was hired by some US state and they designed this thing.
a tip of the hat to - if you tip your hat to someone you are honoring that person, or pointing out that you admire that person
a messiah - Christians believe that Jesus was the messiah (a leader to save the Jews), but Jewish folks say Christians are badly mistaken and Jesus was just a teacher and trouble-maker
to be back on track - to be doing the right thing again
symbolically laden - to be filled with symbolism 
a legitimate rationale - a rationale is a reason or justification; a legitimate rationale would be a reason that makes sense or a reason most people would feel to be right
a justification - this is an excuse that is made so that people do not criticize something
to have license - to have permission
schizophrenia is a severe mental illness in which a person no longer can tell the difference between what is real and what is not
deterrent- adjective form of deterrence
hanged, drawn and quartered - a horrible form of execution in which a person is hanged by the neck a little, then his arms and legs are cut where they connect to his body and then horses pull the person apart (into five pieces - two arms,two legs and a torso)
mentally sound - not mentally ill, mentally or psychologically ok 
mentally unbalanced - mentally ill
immune to something - if someone is immune to something, he/she can't be affected by it
an assassination - when a political leader is killed
retribution - revenge
a fixed action pattern - like an instinct, something a person does without thinking
mating season - the period of time when male and female fish get together to procreate in order to have offspring 
economically deprived - lacking or not having basic economic opportunities
molded -made into
unveiled - revealed, released, provided
a bunker is like a military structure
recreational - leisure, enjoyment
socially engineered - made into something by social and economic processes
radical - extreme
pacifist - someone who favors peace and not violence
advocated - encouraged
to shield ourselves - hide ourselves or protect ourselves
corrupt - not honest
incarcerated - to be in jail
flourishes - does well, increases

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