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Fighting Words

Former Utne Editor in Chief David Schimke on conflict, compassion, partisanship, and peace

Literary Execution

 by David Schimke

Tags: George Orwell, Eric Blair, A Hanging, Burma, capital punishment, death penalty, Mark Goudeau, John Kitzhaber, execution, The American Prospect, Great Writing, The American Conservative, David Schimke,


According to journalist Anna Clark, last week’s decision by Governor John Kitzhaber to put a moratorium on executions in Oregon “is the latest step in the accelerating movement to abolish capital punishment in the U.S. through state-by-state moratorium’s and voter initiatives.”

Blogging for The American Prospect, Clark goes on to report that nationwide “the actual number of executions has dropped by nearly a third since the 1990s, which may reflect increasing public ambivalence. Publicity around exonerated inmates is also raising uncertainty even among those who otherwise support capital punishment.” Clark also notes that overall support for the death penalty has dropped 19 percent in the last 17 years.”

This analysis, along with recent headlines about the death sentence a Phoenix jury dealt convicted serial killer Mark Goudeau, got me wondering whether or not this might be one of those rare, fleeting times that the headlines conspire to get the issue of capital punishment off the back page to the forefront of America’s collective conscience. It also sent me back to an arts story being passed around the office last summer.

In a piece published by The American Conservative in September, author John Rodden encourages readers to revisit “A Hanging,” a moving, first-person story about the public execution of an unidentified Indian man in Burma. Published in 1931, the 2,000 word essay proved to be literary breakthrough for a 28-year-old author named Eric Blair—who, two years later, would adopt the pen name George Orwell.

“The success of ‘A Hanging’ turns on the fact that its narrative gradually and ingeniously shifts: its final paragraphs generate a perspective that ultimately induces us to consider ourselves the guilty parties—as executioners bereft of any moral high ground—rather than the condemned man,” writes Rodden. “We need to reread Eric Blair’s ‘A Hanging’ for political and moral reasons. We need to be reminded that the guilty are not necessarily—or only—those who are convicted of crimes. Let us pause and consider Orwell’s ending when we presume to sit in judgment and take another’s life.”

Source: The American Conservative 

 Image by Avia Venefica, licensed under Creative Commons