Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Off with their heads

The following are excerpts from a fascinating interview with a Saudi Arabian executioner. The interview was originally aired on Lebanese TV, November 4, 2006 and posted on the MEMRI website. You can read the entire interview there. I post excerpts here not because I am opposed to the death penalty (regular readers of Recliner Commentaries know that I support the death penalty) but because the interview provides a fascinating insight into another culture—can you imagine an interview like this on Oprah?

Reporter: "This is the most renowned executioner in Saudi Arabia, Abdallah Bin Sa'id Al-Bishi, who carries out the executions. His sword delineates the border between seriousness and play. There is no negotiating with him once the heads have ripened. When it's harvesting time, he is the most suited for the job."

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "I started to work in this field after the death of my father – about a week or 10 days after his death, in 1412 [1991-92]. I was surprised that the people who supervise this field summoned me, saying I had a mission. Allah be praised. Of course, I did not have swords or anything back then, but I used the swords of my father, may he rest in peace, and carried out the execution. My first mission was to execute three people."

Reporter: "Abu Bader's swords have cut off a hundred heads and more. His eldest son, Badr, is training in the same profession. He inherited this profession from his father, Sa'id Al-Bishi. He remembers how, when still a small boy, he accompanied him to the beheading of a criminal in Mecca. That sight, Abu Badr says, was the turning point in his life."

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "I was at school, and an execution was set for my father in Mecca. It was to take place in front of the King Abd Al-'Aziz Gate. Before all that happened at the Al-Haram Mosque, the executions were held there. We showed up. I was a little boy. The first thing that came to my mind when people talked about executions was the digestive system. I wanted to see it. At that time, we had an exam at school on the digestive system, and we had to explain about the digestive system and whatever... So I came along, and the moment my father executed the man, I ran to see the digestive system, but all I could see was the man's head flying, and where the neck used to be, there was a kind of well. It went down. That's it. I couldn't take it anymore. I woke up in the car on the way home. At night, I tried to go to sleep, but couldn't. I had nightmares, but only once. Then I got used to it, Allah be praised. "

First TV host: "Do you cut off hands, or do you just do beheadings?"

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "Yes, yes. I carry out the punishment of cutting off thieves' hands, as well as the cutting off of a hand and a leg on alternate sides, as is written in the Koran."

Second TV host: "Abdallah, when you carry out the punishment of cutting off limbs, do you anesthetize the condemned person, or is it done without anesthesia, like beheadings?"

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "With regard to the cutting off of a hand, or of both a hand and a leg, it is done with local anesthesia only."

Second TV host: "But the person who is being beheaded is definitely not anesthetized, right?"

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "No, he is not anesthetized at all."

First TV host: "Abu Badr, do you remember the first time you carried out an execution? Do you remember that day?"

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "I remember it to this day. I was surprised when the officials in charge asked me to carry out one of Allah's punishments. When I came, I was told it would be an execution, and I said: 'No problem.' I took the sword that used to belong to my father, may he rest in peace... "

First TV host: "How old were you then?"

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "At that point I was... I was a man."

First TV host: "You are a man at any age, there's no doubt about that, but how old were you?"

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "I don't remember exactly – 32 or 35 years old. I began in 1412."

First TV host: "How was the experience, especially since it was your first time? How did you feel?"

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "Every person is a bit worried when he starts a new job, and is afraid he will fail."

"I Have Beheaded Many People Who Were My Friends, But Whoever Commits an Offense Brings it on Himself"; "If The Heart is Compassionate, The Hand Fails"

Second TV host: "Abdallah, what was your most difficult beheading? Have you ever beheaded someone you knew?"

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "Yes, I have beheaded many people who were my friends, but whoever commits an offense brings it on himself."

First TV host: "When you behead more than three or four people at once, does it affect you? My second question is: Do you need a break between executions? Does it affect you or not?"

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "Allah be praised, there is nothing to it. Three, four, five, or six – there is nothing to it. It's entirely normal. An execution is an execution, and as long as the person stands straight... As long as the person stands straight, it makes our job much easier."

First TV host: "Abu Badr, what time do you get up? Do you eat a special breakfast? All these details are very important to us."

Abdallah Al-Bishi: "I cannot elaborate on the work itself. On the personal level, I am very normal. I get up in the morning, pray the Al-Fajr prayer. My breakfast is prepared, and I eat it. Allah be praised. I wait for the police car to pick me up, and I go to work. It's all very normal. I finish the job, and go home. It's all very normal."


Robert said...

I am in opposition to the death penalty, so I have a hard time reading this and seeing it as anything other than cold and callous. What really bothers me is in this line:

"I Have Beheaded Many People Who Were My Friends, But Whoever Commits an Offense Brings it on Himself"; "If The Heart is Compassionate, The Hand Fails"

It strikes me as wrong. I do not argue with him that when a friend commits a crime he invites justice regardless of their personal relationship, but I argue that execution is not justice. It is legal retribution. But for me, the most bothersome part is the part about compassion.

In Ephesians 4:31-32 (NIV) it states:
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

I’m not suggesting we be suddenly just let people off the hook – justice still must be done. However, compassion for our fellow man should be shown too. Everyone should have a chance for atonement and reconciliation. While some people may never achieve it (hence a life sentence in prison), they ought to be given that opportunity. I do recognize that some people present too much risk to society to ever be released. However, that (by itself) seems like a poor reason to justify execution.

It bothers me that people who have benefited by Jesus’ substitution for our sins would decide that others are unworthy of the same gift. Generally (in the US) the death penalty is reserved for those that commit murder. So we say that we take the perpetrator’s life in repayment. I’m not suggesting all of us have committed a crime equal to murder, but without Jesus’ substitution, we’d all be facing final death anyway which is far more devastating than dying in this life.

In the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), the one servant is forgiven a huge debt, but that same servant turns around and accosts one of his servants looking for repayment. While I recognize that the state has rights given to it that we personally do not have, it is also a representation of the people who make it up. We have a duty and an obligation to exercise that power in a way that will bring justice and compassion to our legal system.

Again, I want to be clear that I believe justice must be performed, but I argue that execution is NOT justice. Justice without compassion can easily fall into revenge.

Dennis said...

Robert, where is your tolerance for another culture, your sense of multiculturalism? Who are we to judge just because they choose to do things differently? :-)

robert said...

With all due respect Doc, I think I'm just as critical of our own society in this regard. ;)

professor ed said...

Thanks for the cultural heads up!