GEORGETOWN, Texas — It’s not easy to find something positive to say about the method of execution known as stoning, but I’m going to try before this column is finished.
Stoning is in the same category with flogging, torture and slavery, which in a better world would have been abolished long ago. Alas, these dreadful practices die hard; they persist, and in some cultures they are resurgent.
Brunei is a tiny nation on the island of Borneo. It is ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who is fabulously wealthy, thanks to Brunei’s plentiful oil resources. He lives in a 1,788-room palace and owns a gold-plated Rolls-Royce. Michael Jackson performed for his 50th birthday.
The sultan serves as the country’s prime minister, foreign minister, finance minister and defense minister. He is also the chief enforcer of religious discipline, and he applies a harsh form of conservative Islam on his subjects. He made news last month for implementing punishments such as amputation and stoning for homosexuality, theft and adultery.
Stoning is probably the original form of capital punishment, the killing of an offender by his community with the implements readily at hand. Stoning figures prominently in Jewish history, but it survives today only in Islamic countries, where it is legal but generally used only sporadically.
Under Iran’s penal code, for example, a man found guilty of adultery “shall be buried in a ditch up to near his waist” and a woman “up to near her chest,” and then they are “stoned to death.” It’s hard to imagine a death more primitive and brutal.
The law’s language is complicated, subjective and often capricious. For example, a man who escapes from the ditch goes free if his conviction was based on his own confession. But if he was convicted based on the testimony of others, he is forced back into the ditch and is stoned.
Further, Iran’s penal code is extremely specific about what constitutes a sex act — I’ll spare you the details — but vague about what represents a proper stone for use in the execution, which “shall not be too large to kill the convict by one or two throws and at the same time shall not be too small to be called a stone.”
Stoning is a savage business that has no place in a civilized culture. But I said that I was going to say something positive about it. Here is a quirk of stoning that might be instructive for our nation:
If a person is convicted of adultery based on his confession, the judge who has applied the law throws the first stone, then others join in. If a person is convicted based on the testimony of witnesses, the witnesses throw the first stones, then the judge throws one and then the others.
What’s good about this? Stoning exposes the brutality of capital punishment by requiring that the death sentence be carried out in a public and participatory way. The members of the community closest to the case throw the first stones, and every community member has an opportunity to witness and be a part of the killing.
In our culture, we’ve gone to great lengths to do just the opposite. The last public hanging was in 1936. Since then, executions have been carried out behind closed doors, and we’ve found ways to make them considerably less brutal, and thus more acceptable, than stoning.
Still, support for capital punishment shows signs of waning in our culture. When they have the option, juries show a preference for life without parole over death. How would they behave if the law required them to participate in the execution? And how would the rest of us react if we were required to watch?
Should we bring back stoning? Of course not. But stoning differs from lethal injection only as a matter of degree. As we practice capital punishment, it is still brutal, ineffective, capricious and arbitrary. And until we abolish it, any criticism of stoning in places such as Brunei and Iran rings hollow.
Crisp is a Tribune News Service columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.