Death and Torture

I. First, a joke.

Two explorers land on a remote island. It’s lush, green, and temperate. Suddenly, a group of natives surrounds them. They seize one of the explorers but the other manages to get away. They communicate to him that he must make a terrible choice, “Death or Unngg?”

Confused by this new word, the explorer is unsure of what to do. But he reasons that Unngg, whatever it is, must not be worse than death. So he chooses Unngg.

The natives strip him of his clothes and make him lie naked on the beach. They leave. They come back with huge, muscular pink tongues of some giant animal. Then they proceed to beat the explorer over and over again with the tongues. He cries out in horrible yelps of pain. After what seems like several hours, they stop and let him go.

Soon afterwards, the natives seize the second explorer. Again they ask, “Death or Unngg?” The first explorer, sore and beaten, calls out to him, “Choose death! Unngg is worse than you can imagine.”

Reluctantly, yet feeling prudent, the second explorer says, “Death.” The natives reply, “Right. Death by Unngg!”

II. Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment.” But what is meant by “cruel and unusual punishment”?

Forms of torture like crucifixion and stoning might strike some as cruel and unusual. Whipping might qualify as cruel.

Some might say capital punishment, in any form, is cruel and unusual. In fact, quite a few excellent legal minds have tried to challenge capital punishment based on the Eighth Amendment.

One reason why such challenges have largely failed is that the historical context of the Constitution makes it apparent that the Framers did not intend to outlaw executions. At the time, many so-called “civilized” nations executed criminals.

But is it objectively reasonable to say killing is acceptable but torturing is unacceptable? Put another way, is there such a thing as a fate worse than death?

If one were to argue torture is worth than execution, maybe this would serve as support. Say a man dies on Feb. 10. Now let’s take the same man and say he is executed on Feb. 5. What has the execution accomplished? All it has done is accelerate the inevitable.

But torture is different. Let’s say a man is tortured as a prisoner of war. He endures whippings, beatings, and unspeakable horrors for years. Somehow he escapes. But he is a changed man. He feels that the person he was died in that camp. Now he lives, but he lives with deep physical, mental, and emotional scars.

But looking at the other side, humans can be very resilient. It is quite possible for a victim of torture to recover and live a meaningful, fulfilling life. But it is not possible for a victim of execution to recover.

What do you think?

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