McAvoy Layne

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July 9, 2014
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Pine Nuts: Ten ways you do not want to die

Neither killing is right, neither the first or the second.

In ancient law the person offered up for execution did not necessarily have to be the perpetrator of the crime. As it was, because the justice system was based on tribes rather than individuals, a tribe could pick any hapless individual to “take one for the team” and settle the score:

“Thanks, guys — it’s been nice.” Then along came the Romans with “Damnatio ad Bestias,” or condemnation to beasts, where criminals were thrown to, you guessed it, the lions. The Tang Dynasty of China refined capital punishment to a slightly more humane method of “slow slicing,” or death by a thousand cuts. On rare occasions, special dispensation was granted by the emperor to the condemned subject, whom was allowed to commit suicide.

China also employed decapitation, a technique the French would later hone to perfection. Ambrose Bierce, in “The Devil’s Dictionary,” defined the guillotine as “a machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.”

“Why are the Parisians angry,” asked Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. “Because they have no bread to eat.”

“Then let them eat cake,” is what she reportedly replied. She of, “Let them eat cake,” became awkwardly introduced to the guillotine during the French revolution.

The Burgundians captured Joan of Arc, and I have not been able to buy Burgundy wine since. As a sophomore in high school I was informed by another failing boy sitting beside me in our French class that Joan of Arc’s last words were, “Is it hot in here or is it just me?”

Capital punishment would march inexorably on. The Middle East favors stoning as a method of choice. Oftentimes the accused is buried up to the neck to discourage a moving target. Here in America we sided with hanging early in our history, when there was plenty of rope to go around but few firing squads.

Mark Twain wrote in a burlesque autobiography, “John Morgan Clemens constructed the first gallows in this country. He was present when the first white man was hanged. It was there that he sustained injuries that resulted in his death; cut down in the prime of his life. Some say if he’d been cut down 15 minutes earlier he might have been resuscitated.”

Westinghouse gave us the electric chair, though the first time it was employed they didn’t have enough juice to do the job, so poor William Kemmler, on Aug. 6, 1890, was only half-killed, until they were able to ramp up the juice and finish the job. They said Kemmler was thoroughly “Westinghoused.”

More recently we’ve graduated to drugs, and I guess you know how that method has worked out.

Earlier this year, Oklahoma accidentally tortured Clayton Locket for 43 minutes before, mercifully, he died of a heart attack.

If you’re feeling a little squeamish about now, it is a good sign. I’m feeling a little squeamish myself. So, I will close with two thoughts on our cruel and antiquated culture of capital punishment.

The first is from Albert Camus: “Killing solves nothing — neither the first or the second. Those who favor capital punishment lack imagination. It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”

And finally there is this observation from Mark Twain: “Death makes a hero of the villain, and he is envied by imitators.” Thirty-two of our glorious states still execute prisoners, marking 32 stains upon our noble flag.

To learn more about McAvoy Layne, visit www.ghostoftwain.com.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Jul 9, 2014 06:50PM Published Jul 9, 2014 02:31PM Copyright 2014 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.