Stone age killing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 July, 2010, 12:00am

Language has an ingenious way of turning the cruellest methods of ancient torture and execution into useful metaphors. The physical and literal horrors have, by and large, become a thing of the past in the modern world, so they can be safely used to describe contemporary phenomena in an efficient and graphic way.

Cantonese speakers, for example, use the word yiu cham to describe the abrupt cancellation of a TV programme, sudden reversal of a government policy or company plan that is already some way towards completion. They no longer mean truncation, a method of executing a convict during the Tang dynasty by cutting him in half at the waist.

Another such bloody metaphor is ling chi, or slow slicing. Translated sometimes as 'death by a thousand cuts', it has even slipped into English usage. An expatriate fund manager, for instance, may use the phrase to describe the gradual collapse of a company or the slow-motion train wreck of an economy like Greece's.

I was led to thinking about this while holidaying in Toronto because Canadians - and others around the world - have been up in arms against the sentence of death by stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old Iranian woman and mother of two, for adultery and, as subsequently emerged, murder. Tehran has now announced Ashtiani will not be stoned to death, but it is unclear whether she will be executed by other means.

The evolution of language mirrors social changes. The fact that we can use the names of ancient tortures and executions as metaphors to describe things that are much more benign should be seen as social progress. In most parts of the world, Jesus' admonition - 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone' - would not be interpreted literally. Alas, that's not the case in Iran. What Jesus was referring to has an all too literal and horrible meaning for Ashtiani and some 20 other women awaiting the same method of execution in Iran.

After a multi-year moratorium, the gruesome method of execution has returned with a vengeance since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took power. It is mandated that every stone thrown should not be big enough to cause immediate death nor small enough to not cause any harm. The sadism - and the political motive to make the public a willing accomplice - is obvious. The condemned is - sickeningly - wrapped in a pristine white sheet and buried in a pit. If he or she escapes, the death sentence is automatically commuted. But here's the misogynistic twist. The male is only buried to his waist while the female is up to her neck. And far more women have been executed by stoning than men.

I am aware that by making this criticism, I too may be guilty of Jesus' famous retort to the Pharisees - metaphorically. I belong in a country that executes more people, in absolute numbers, than all the other countries that have capital punishment put together.

And I am also a sucker for cultural relativism. Maybe Iranians really take adultery much more seriously than we do. Perhaps Ashtiani did commit a capital offence. Since the evidence of her conviction has never been made public, we have no way of knowing. But the point is that it is not the execution but the horrible method to be used that has provoked the world's outrage. In China, prisoners are commonly executed with a bullet in the head; authorities are planning to use lethal injection more often. Mass public executions have become increasingly rare. Mainland authorities at least recognise that executions should be quick and preferably held behind closed doors. By contrast, death by stoning turns a public spectacle into public participation.

The way a country executes its prisoners says a lot about the nature of its government. I have never found Iran's attempt to go nuclear any worse than the rogue nuclear weapons programmes of Israel, India and Pakistan. But the fate of Ashtiani and others like her says something about the heart of darkness that lies within the ruling elites of Tehran.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post