"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

Sep 20, 2011

Blood Debts and Death Magic

If all goes as planned for the government of the State of Georgia, on Wednesday, September 21, at approximately 7pm (tomorrow, from the writing of this post), Troy Davis will be poisoned until he is dead.

Should this occur, he will pay a blood debt to no one, upon the completion of an act of death magic which has no effect but the production of a corpse.

People who consider themselves human will applaud this exercise of power, no small number of them braying (and believing) that the poisoning to death of Troy Davis will by an explicit act of death and blood magic restore society to a greater good.

Troy Davis, like Cameron Willingham, will be poisoned until he is dead in the name of a life he very likely did not end. Even if he was the taker of that life, poisoning him to death will not now or ever restore it. Society will not now or ever be improved by the act, because the past can never be recovered.

No act of vengeance, punishment or judicial magic can change the past. At best, it can pretend to satiate the need to see another suffer.

Vengeance* is human, in so much as shitting and eating are human.

But, coupling vengeance with power or with the stupid belief in a propitiating sacrifice is not unlike shitting in one's own mouth and swallowing it. Because, and this is a rather simple concept to grasp, blood does not pay debts. Where one corpse or wounded body was, now there are two. Or more:

The death penalty is human sacrifice.

It’s the persistence of blood magic, the ancient and nearly perennial belief that the spilling of blood expiates crime.

To believe that poisoning a man to death will compensate for his deeds is magical thinking – that the past can be redeemed or altered, and that epiphenomena can be animated, by the doing of current deeds.

The death penalty is human sacrifice.

At the risk of reading as a broken record, it’s an attempt at blood expiation, at rewriting the unalterable past by way of present actions, at “righting the order of the world.” Perhaps the gods aren’t invoked as often, but the same “balance restoring” logic is still employed: if the Gods/State/Society aren't expiated with a blood offering, more bad people will [insert unexplained magical mechanism] arise.

People who believe that the social order depends upon this sacred or mystical balance, and also believe in the human sacrifice** that is the death penalty will go to great political lengths to preserve that order.

A believer in the death and blood magic of the "ulimate penalty" has to ignore the disconnect between the arguments about functionality, process or legal merit and the ineluctable fact that the executed person’s death does not and cannot alter the past. Human sacrifice might feel good (that’s the emotional point of vengeance and its lawyerly cousin, punishment – to feel good about hurting someone with the sanction of peers, to get away with violence against those who “deserve” it). It might allow the beneficiary of that violence, or the one committing it, to feel as if order is restored. But it doesn’t erase the actions which allegedly merit punishment. Because we cannot alter the past.

No debt is paid. No balance is restored. No past acts are eliminated or erased. It’s just another de-animated corpse where a person once was. Because, while the magical thinking is real, the magic itself is not.

* - which is no commentary on whether or not some people ought to die; I see little reason to suffer a rapist to live, though I have no faith that punishing him achieves anything but his death. 

** - incarcerating a twenty year old for ten years, or the rest of her life, because she turned plants into narcotics is also human sacrifice; it's just on the installment plan.


Anatole David said...

The same superstitious fealty to paying debt imbues most "Liberal" states regarding the divine right of creditors(bondholders, banks, etc) to collect in full as inviolable while social contracts with the people states supposedly represent(another superstition) are rendered profane and "unserious".

Excellent post.

The Death Penalty is a Medieval vestige wherein people pay debt with their lives--at the cost of greater society--because they have no money to render alleged victims' families bloodmoney.(cf. US State Dept paying off Pakistani families of those killed by US Contractor)

Of course this goes further and somewhat explains the unequal application of the Death Penalty. Of course, in general, the poor are executed at a much higher rate. Their life is all they can lay down to pay the "debt".

It is time people end their slavish fealty to arbitrarily imposed debts. These debts serve the aims of corrupted authority and have no legitimacy. They sate the organs of coercive power, not justice.

The explosion of incarceration rates in the US and record wealth inequality implies creditors have the ability to sanction debtors, through co-opted state authority, unto death.

It is Human Sacrifice. Debt(in various aspects) is the new Moloch.

Justin said...

I'll just link to myself in response.

I hope we change our ways of thinking soon.

rapier said...

Let me quote the Medium Lobster in full.

America Pleased With Killing of Thing

After years of groaning unemployment and morbid obesity, America has rediscovered its love of life by killing a thing. While the thing had killed other things, it had frequently killed the wrong kinds of things, in the wrong kinds of ways, and it was important, America felt, to kill it, along with several hundred thousand other things, to stress the point. "There is a long and honorable tradition of killing things in America," said the secretary of killing things. "But this thing did not kill things in the way that things are supposed to kill things. And so I am pleased to say that we killed it."

While killing this thing is an important victory in America's global war on things, America's fight to kill things will go on. "The killing of this thing does not mark the end of our effort to kill things," the president of killing things said in a special statement. "Things are still out there. We must - and we will - remain devoted to killing things, at home and abroad."

The thing's corpse has been decorated with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize, and will be married to Kate Middleton and Prince William this afternoon in an emotional public ceremony before being added to America's collection of things America has killed, which is known to include an impressive selection of Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Palestinians, Latin Americans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, African slaves, Native Americans and children of all ages.

Labels: eaters of the dead, everybody loves a winner, warnography


kelley b. said...

On the other hand, if the goal of this is Crowley-style blood majick, it aims to perpetuate fear and the cycle of injustice, and it does that quite nicely.

Abonilox said...

This is an interesting approach to the topic. I like the argument. Not sure if it's true, but as a rhetorical response to an utterly pointless and barbaric cultural phenomenon, it's effective (and one cannot help but make the association with the dominant religion in our society). I will ponder it for a while.

Jack Crow said...

I don't know if it has to be precisely true - in the sense that the police, prosecutors, jury, judge and supporting citizens confess to the need for a human sacrifice. Might be that if this were acknowledged in plain language, it would prove a less palatable "solution." Perhaps, though, it would get more adherents, given the bloodyhanded American national character.

I don't mean it just as metaphor, since Troy Davis is being sacrificed to "atone" for the death of MacPhail. He is further being sacrificed by people (like the governor, the President and the prosecutor) who are "powerless" to stop it. The county prosecutor and the governor, IIRC, did some hand having to that effect, reinforcing the idea that the needs of the death magic (someone must die, and the complexities of the ritual are already in motion) supersede those of fairness.

It doesn't matter, from that vantage, if an innocent man dies. A propitiation must be made.

rapier said...

Limiting myself to the traditions of English law, execution always had a strong element of ritual. The complex mechanisms of assigning guilt and punishment by death in the name of justice providing a cover for more base motives like the use of raw state power or to sate populist desires, essentially sadistic, for blood and death.

If I were ever plucked by fate to die for a crime I had no part in I would not suffer much anguish about justice misused or mistaken because I would know I was just an actor in a ritual predating any modern concept of justice.

Randal Graves said...

It's not a real human sacrifice unless all parties are dressed up as extras in a Hammer flick.

C'mon, State, get with it, already.

Phillip Allen said...

Verging off topic, corvid comrade; been a while of reading you here and elsewhere and valuing your opinions, not commenting myself much. Thank you by the way for keeping this a place where an old, sly dog can enjoy his mistrust.

davidly said...

Now hold on one minute there Mister! All the smartest had a pow wow and explained quite clearly how all the future murderers wouldn't take the state seriously* if the state didn't kill them. It's called mutual destruction.

Not like those crazy wingnuts who cheer the idea of execution at public debates. The horror. At least the smartest are sober about carrying out such an important task.

Seriously: Right on. Absolutely death cult shit. I don't see any way around that argument.

*not to mention the legions who would murder if they knew they wouldn't be executed (I go laugh now)

Jack Crow said...

Oy, thanks.

One hour. To sacrifice a man even Sessions (that prick) is willing to admit is most likely innocent.

Think Obama will intervene?

I doubt it.

Because that would be bad press. It would make him look "black" to Republicans...

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

To me, the most chilling thing about execution by lethal injection is that it's a horrible parody of a medical procedure. The very clinical nature of the procedure makes it more horrific to me than a beheading or hanging, both procedures which don't even try to hide the barbarity of the death penalty.

Anatole David said...


Indeed. It is more horrific in its "antiseptic gentility".

Jack Crow said...

As of 8:55 pm EST, Clarence Thomas is the SCOTUS judge deciding whether or not to extend the stay of execution.

Jack Crow said...

Courtesy Democracy Now, the execution of Troy Davis, should it proceed, will be contracted out to "Rainbow Medical,' a private company.

Jack Crow said...

Me: Wouldn't it be nifty if Ratzinger excommunicated all the Catholics on the SCOTUS?

Also Me: Yeah, but...

Me: But what?

Also Me: Nazi Youth Pope isn't that politically dense...

Jack Crow said...

Clarence Thomas and the Roberts court will not stay the execution of Troy Davis. Yeah, "justice system."

Devin Lenda said...

Came across this bit of nastiness somewhere (from a non-official):

"He was found guilty by a jury of his peers. The citizens of Georgia got to pay for 22 years of his living expenses and appeals. Good riddance."

Somewhere, perhaps behind the desire for blood you describe, Jack, or maybe alongside it, there seems to be a childish desire to MAKE THE BAD THING GO AWAY. It's too bad to think, too bad to mention. Good riddance. "Make it suffer" and "make it go away," hmm...

Anyway, someone has to play the role of that which must suffer/go away. If no one volunteers, someone will be found.

I recall you saying you're not a fan of psychoanalysis but what's your take on Alice Miller? I personally buy into her theory, as I understand it, taken from the pyschoanalytic tradition, that the child wants to reenact the initial trauma, only this time winning. The child was rejected by an authority figure, told to "go away." The child thinks, "no, you go away." The child resists, the parent scorns, punishes, the child is made to suffer. "No, you suffer," thinks the child, only he's impotent to enact his wish.

This is sketchy territory, admittedly, so I'd be happy to say that if it's not that, it's something like that.

Jack Crow said...


I am only familiar with Alice Miller through the work of Arthur Silber and Chris Floyd.

I think the arguments they've presented, from her, make a lot of sense.

[My problem with psychoanalysis and psychiatry is the assumption of a baseline mental health towards which people can be talked, medicated and cured.]

I tend to agree with what you've written, above - because I was, to put things mildly, abused as a child.


I am far more comfortable with violence than my wife, who despite growing up with even fewer opportunities than I, has a healthier view of human opportunity and mutuality than I can generally manage.

My parents were technicians who had both jumped a rung out of their own childhood poverty. My mother's childhood, from what I gather, was fairly severe. My parents were high achievers and bootstrappers who viewed failure as a moral condition.

My wife's parents were the real deal proletarians (dad, a grocery clerk; mom, a school lunch lady) who did not strike their children, did not punish them often enough that my wife can even remember being punished, and did not operate from a starting point of mistrust and a demand for perfection.

My wife was a poor student, and her mother encouraged her to do well, but not to overthink or care too much about proving her merit competitively. It was more important to her that her children do what pleased them. My wife and her siblings aren't models of happiness and well-adjusted living (blech), but they are people who know how to do what gives them pleasure.

One of my most distinct childhood memories (before the State took me away) is handing my mother a grade sheet with no score less than a 97 and being beat near to death for failing to get all 100s.

I didn't take to the program, and developed both a contempt for authority and a propensity for "acting out" and violence, which was only reinforced by being held as a (literal) ward of the State. My much younger brothers, on the other hand, are all high achievers and by modern standards, successful professionals and businesspeople.

My wife, by comparison, is a walking antidote to rage and violence, while still possessing a healthy contempt for authority.

Devin Lenda said...

Thanks a bunch. These personal stories are invaluable.

My mom is Irish, dad is Polish, families arrived poor at Staten Island in the late 19th century. Proles. Dad's a valedictorian and H.S. physics teacher. Mom started as a part-time data enterer, ascended to managerial status. Suburbs, two cars. Conservative Catholic hippies. The contradictions will fuck a kid up.

What's crazy is that I wasn't abused physically, just emotionally, but still got pretty fucked up. I had it great, by most measures. Even emotionally, my parents had that hippie touch where they theoretically accepted a lot that classically Puritanical parents wouldn't. So they weren't even emotionally abusive in a way that woud be recognized by so-called experts. They never complained about my grades, though I knew I was disappointing them. They never told me which career path to take, but I knew it had to be a good one. The fact that they never stood up for me when I shouted against my hypocritical teachers was enough to let me know where they stood.

To someone who was more seriously abused, this may sound like whining, and for that, apologies. I can only say that I was made to hate myself as much as possible short of suicide (and almost that) and that there's more to abuse than obvious material conditions. I feel Holden Caulfield's pain, for what it's worth. Conor O'Berst of Bright Eyes is a similar case (good material conditions, emotional wreck, Catholic) and, if you get the chance, his music is brilliant and lyrics, I think, Dylan-level at least.

Again, thanks.

Phillip Allen said...

Your wife sounds a bit like a bodhisatva to me. You're a lucky man.

antonello said...

I was directed to this post, Jack, by Ethan. If I could paraphrase what I said on his site as well as connecting it with what David Lenda has said above, I would add this: that modern-day executions, besides being conducted as a ritual sacrifice and as magical thinking, are also done as if they were a form of psychotherapy.

The victims' loved ones desire closure. They cannot feel release and get on with their lives until the execution is performed. We have wronged them to have made them suffer all these years. We owe it to them to end their pain.

Of course, we don't really end their pain. Their grief will continue for the rest of their lives, as it must. The alleged closure will not heal anyone. And yet it is demanded in all solemnity. The loved ones need to feel empowered. They require this enabling gesture.

A deeply human need, to be sure; but repugnant all the same. To have someone killed to make you feel better about yourself: this is decadent.

Jack Crow said...


I hope it's clear that I wasn't offering complaint. Just an anecdote, as a way of confirmation.

I was in a laundromat a while back, and found myself in a conversation with the attendant. She was in some of the same foster homes and state facilities, years after I'd been there.

Our stories were, as is often the case, similar. Abuse, acting out, punishment, alienation. Then, settling in with a group of equally ruined people who've made a life of turning victimhood into armor. I didn't know this girl, and I only ran into her maybe twice again before she moved on, but I felt a kinship with her that I rarely experience with healthy or at at least non-abused people.

Some of the worst cases were actually people who'd never been struck in their lives. I have real scars, and therefore reminders that my experiences are not conjured. On my lip, on my arm, on my chest: mementos. I know it happened. It's a kind of reckoning that makes it possible to be more human.

The people without scars, without their own bodies as evidence: they're often worm eaten with doubt and self-destruction.

The larger point, of course, holds - broken people make broken people, and the cycle of punishment and vengeance continues, right up to obvious political manifestations, where the need to feel safe, to exorcise one's insecurities and self-betrayals has a person identifying with the worst offenders in order to get big and mean on the smallest ones.


She is. Which is not to idealize here. She shits and farts and can do fine without me.


The mechanism fascinates me, because I spent my twenties doing a savage Punchinello puppet show version of the long road to futile vengeance. Which is unfair to the Pulcinella, who is a good un-king, where as I was trying to reconcile and make right and restore balance and all the other novelty store psycho-bauble collecting.

We don't get the real comedy of this black magic/good religion/mind therapy because we really believe, on a civilization wide basis, that the past can be re-animated.

Wayne Kasper calls it "retromania," I think. Or, I'm reading his reads on retromania wrong, but fruitfully enough to make some sense of them.

The past is gone, it never was. Still, it's all around us, and so much of what we do, especially when it comes to punishment and "healing" is an attempt to kill it by bringing it back to life again.