The hangman and the soldier

We have so many questions in the modern world which are really difficult to answer; I wish the modern people would leave off asking questions which are quite easy to answer, or, rather, which are not even worth answering.  Latter-day scepticism is fond of calling itself progressive; but scepticism is really reactionary in the only intelligent sense which that term can bear.  Scepticism goes back; it attempts to unsettle what has already been settled.  Instead of trying to break up new fields with its plough, it simply tries to break up the plough.  And the worst symptom is this habit of our philosophers of asking nursery questions, questions that most of us in our babyhood either found answered or found unanswerable.  Sophistry has gone so far as to unlearn the alphabet and reverse the clock.  Many of the queries solemnly propounded in our most portentous books and magazines are queries which a schoolboy would answer with instantaneous and irritating smartness, and which a healthy child would not even admit to be queries at all.

I take such cases as come to hand.  I read two articles this morning in two very able and distinguished periodicals which were devoted to this general consideration: “How extraordinary it is that the hangman is regarded with horror, which the soldier and the judge are not regarded with horror.”  The schoolboy would burst his Eton collar in his eagerness to answer so obvious a difficulty.  He would say at once that a hangman is not so fine as a soldier, because he is not so brave.  A hangman is merely a destroyer; a soldier is not.  A soldier, at the best, is a martyr; at the worst, he is a good gambler.  If the public executioner were obliged to have a personal conflict on the scaffold with the criminal, upon the issue of which depended which of the two were hanged, then general public sentiment would admire the hangman, just as general public sentiment admires the soldier.

All this is a very tiresome truism; but that is my point.  I cannot understand anyone asking a question that has so obvious an answer.  The writer, if I remember correctly, goes on to attempt a solution by talking about clinging memories of barbaric creeds and the slow advance through history of the humanitarian sentiment.  But the thing has nothing to do with the advance of anything or the memory of anything.  There never was a time in recorded history when soldiers were not liked, while hangmen, jailers, and torturers were regarded with marked coldness.  There is no record of any civilization in which the hangman was a desirable parti for the daughters of the aristocracy.  There never was a Victoria Cross merely for killing people.  There never was a civic crown ob cives interfectos.

This does not appear particularly surprising to anyone whose heart is in the right place or whose head is screwed on correctly.  It is not hard to see that the human soul has always recognized three degrees of moral value in the matter of killing.  Highest is the martyr, who is killed without killing; second is the soldier, who is killed and kills; third is the executioner, who kills with no peril at all of being killed in return.  He is disliked.  It may be unjust, but I do not understand anyone thinking it unnatural.

The Illustrated London News, 6 February 1909.

Published in: on March 11, 2009 at 7:58 am  Leave a Comment  

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