Reading Wolf Hall and the morning paper -

Reading Wolf Hall and the morning paper


I happened to stay up late last night to finish the Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, in which novelist Hilary Mantel imagines Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s often vilified chief minister, as a wily humanist who ushers England toward modern government. This being a story of 16th-century statecraft, torture and executions feature prominently. More than once the question of whether the king might show sufficient mercy to have someone’s head cut off, rather than burning them alive, arises.

I woke up this morning to read, on the front page of the paper, that the Iranian government has bowed to international pressure and is reviewing a sentence of death by stoning, handed down by one of its courts against a 43-year-old woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, convicted of adultery. The fear now is that Iran might hang her instead. It would have been comforting to pretend that the grislier concerns of Cromwell’s time were not still so precisely present in our own.

It’s not even possible to take solace in thinking that these matters are limited to throwback regimes. On this continent, we were subjected only last month to the disturbing spectacle of double-murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner insisting on death by firing squad, rather than lethal injection, in Utah. His choice—like a question of burning or beheading, stoning or hanging—forces into our thoughts the real nature of any state resorting to killing as a punishment.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel explores the period when Cromwell was orchestrating England’s break with Rome, on Henry VIII’s behalf. She shows us the ascendant instruments of law, bureaucracy and commerce in conflict with the old forces of church hierarchy, superstition and aristocracy. One of her great narrative strengths is the ability to take the reader deep inside the machinations of court and clergy, and then shift her focus deftly to how modest individuals—a naive “maid” who has religious visions, a scholar whose reading takes him in a risky direction—get mangled by the forces at play around them. These poor souls end up imprisoned, interrogated, put on trials in which the verdicts are inevitable.

There’s other news in the papers that might fit that line of storytelling. For example, a mere boy is dragged by his fanatic father into religious war, and ends up languishing unseen, for many years, in the notorious prison of a great power, awaiting trial before a special court convened by the very army whose soldier he is accused of killing. Cromwell would have found such a scenario as familiar as he would our contemporary questions about how an innocent woman or a guilty man might be put to death.


Reading Wolf Hall and the morning paper

  1. We never left the Middle Ages, we just have better technology.

  2. Comparing the Ashtiani case to the Lee case is apples and oranges.

    • Wasn't that rather part of Geddes' point?

      • His point, as I understand it, is that they are NOT apples and oranges. He's wrong.

        • His point on Ashtiani and Lee is that we are only quibbling over the method of execution. But the result is the same.

          The person still winds up dead.

          • One case where a guilty murderer gets to choose his method of execution.

            The other case where an adultress (a crime for which only women are apparently punished) might be hanged instead of stoned to death.

            Let's not pretend these are truly analogous.

          • It's a state-ordered execution either way…and the result is the same…death.

            So beheading, burning alive, lethal injection or firing squad….it's all the same in the end.

            We are still doing it in the 21st century.

          • And their are ridiculous justifications for it (beheadings at the whim of a King, or the stoning of an innocent woman because of some perverted religious notion) and there are more legitimate ones (convicted murderers being put to death after exhausting numerous appeals in a fair justice system).

            My point is that Geddes risks a moral relativism in his post. Bad forms of capital punishment don't render all forms of capital punishment equal.

          • Or you could read before judging cultures.

            'In the United States, laws vary from state to state. In those states where adultery is still on the statute book (although rarely prosecuted), penalties vary from life sentence (Michigan),[48] to a fine of $10 (Maryland), to a Class I felony (Wisconsin).[49] In the U.S. Military, adultery is a potential court-martial offense'

          • Ronnie Lee Gardner was raised by his sister, 8 years his senior, and molested by his older brother. He served as a lookout for his mother's subsequent husband, Bill Lucas, while burglarizing homes. Troubled by his early teens, Gardner was committed to the Utah State Hospital in Provo and the Utah State Industrial School in Ogden..Jack Statt became a foster parent to Gardner and one of his brothers in 1975, but performed sex acts on the boys. Gardner told psychologists that he worked as a prostitute while living with Statt, who was identified as a pedophile. On August 6, 1984, Gardner escaped from custody at University of Utah Hospital after faking an illness . On August 11, a letter carrier found Leavitt's firearm in a mailbox with a note from Gardner that said, "Here's the gun and wallet taken from the guard at the hospital. I don't want to hurt no one else. I just want to be free."[1]

          • Judging cultures? Let me know the last time Michigan sentenced anyone to life or to stoning for adultery, genius.

            As for Gardner, you forgot the bit that follows:

            On October 9, 1984, Gardner attempted to rob the Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City. While high on cocaine, he shot bartender Melvyn Otterstrom in the nostril, killing him.[1] His getaway driver was identified as Darcy Perry McCoy, who testified against him in court. During his trial for the Otterstrom murder, Gardner attempted an escape from custody with a gun that had been smuggled into the courtroom on April 2, 1985.[5] He critically wounded bailiff Nick Kirk and fatally shot attorney Michael Burdell in the eye.

          • The state…any state…should not be killing anyone…for any reason.

            Gender, 'sin', mental illness…anything.

            Not for reasons you like, and not for reasons the US likes, and not for reasons Iran likes.


          • That's just your opinion on capital punishment. And that's fine. But it doesn't make all forms of capital punishment the same.

          • "The state…any state…should not be killing anyone…for any reason.'

            Are you also against abortion, Emily?

          • Adultery is considered a personal matter in the west now, and not a state concern….altho some of the feeling lingers with fines and court martials…but it wasn't that long ago the 'west' was executing people, especially women, for adultery.

            So we aren't much further ahead than Iran on it.

            We still execute the mentally ill…like Gardner, though. A man who spent most of his life in a mental hospital. This is purely medieval.

            Like I said, we're still in the Middle Ages mentally…we just have better technology.

        • Well, he does explicitly refer to one as an "innocent woman" and the other as a "guilty man", so I don't think he thinks he's comparing apples to apples.

    • Well, it's white-wi….oops, right-wing after all.

  3. I'm not sure what to make of this story.
    Iran is bad because they stone?
    Heck – I lived in Saudi Arabia for 2 years – and every Friday there was entertainment in Chop Square after the Friday Noon prayer…Beheadings…hand amputations…
    But wait a minute..the Saudis are our friends right – they are good guys – even though they occasionally stone to death as well…
    All this international politics thingie makes my head swim!

    • Yeah, Saudi Arabia can make Iran look positively liberal.

      But see, Saudi Arabia is our friend.

      Repeat after me:….Saudis good, Iranians bad.

      • And our concern for the women of Afghanistan waxes and wanes depending on whether we're staying there -or not, justifying more troops or equipment etc.

  4. Capital punishments fallacy is that the justice system can be duped into wrongful convictions. Returning sociopaths or psychopaths to society is hardly a remedy to be endorsed. That leaves us with prolonged incarceration, ironically enough paid for by victims through taxation.
    Until you can see inside the minds of the accused we risk both wrongful deaths by the state and returning high risk offenders to the streets.
    If we tried people for adultery here there would be complaints of judicial back-log anyways.

    • In perfect system, capital punishment might work. The catch is to find the honest system that is considered perfect.

      • Which is why capital punishment should be limited to extreme cases, and cases where there isn't just a "reasonable doubt" but no doubt. In Canada, the obvious example is a case like Paul Bernardo.

        • No, we should put some effort into solving the mental problems, and in the meantime make sure those mentally ill people are kept away from society.

          Killing them solves nothing. We've been killing people for centuries, and it's made no difference whatever.

          • You believe you can "solve" Paul Bernardo's mental problems? Executing Bernardo wouldn't be a "solution" – but it would be justice.

          • Should we have executed Steven Truscott?

          • Read the whole thread before asking a question I've already answered.

          • I have read the whole thread. Can you acknowledge that we do not always convict guilty people?

          • So you read the whole thread but ignored what I've already stated.

            As I wrote above: "… capital punishment should be limited to extreme cases, and cases where there isn't just a "reasonable doubt" but no doubt."

          • How do you define 'no doubt'? Courts convict people who we later find out are innocent. You have no concern an innocent person could be executed?

          • The standard is 'beyond reasonable doubt'. Cases where people have later been found innocent are convictions based on questionable witness testimony or lack of DNA evidence. I'm arguing a higher standard of proof is required for capital punishment. For example (again) there is no doubt of Bernardo's guilt, between DNA evidence and the video tapes.

            I agree that the risk of an innocent person being executive is the strongest (in my opinion, the only) argument against capital punishment. But it could easily be applied in extreme cases.

          • wow. "executive" should "executed". sorry to all the CEOs out there…

          • It would be a good thing if we made the effort…people like Bernardo are born everyday. Do we just wait for mass murders to be committed and then go hunting?

            I don't know what made Bernardo as he is…we do know what made Gardener that way.

            But we can't just continue to solve physical problems, and ignore the mental ones. At the moment we're no better on that than the mental home at Bedlam was.

          • Again, your argument is on a tangent. I'm not opposed to better public policy on the side of the mentally ill.

            But don't pretend Gardener's history somehow means he's not culpable for his crimes. That's an insult to the many who had similar histories and didn't resort to murder.

          • So since everybody with a mental illness doesn't kill….we should in turn kill those that do?

          • We should execute murderers.

          • Even when they are mentally incompetent, and not responsible for their actions?

            That is medieval.

          • No, of course not. If they're mentally incompetent, in Canada they are held "not criminally responsible." (I'm not defending Texas here, geez). But you seem to think everyone who commits murder is somehow mentally ill. Not so.

          • The ones you keep mentioning are.

          • I didn't realize you're a clinical psychologist. So, what's Bernardo got, Doctor?

          • I've never examined Bernardo, and neither have you.

            But this is not normal behavior for a human, so obviously there is a mental problem.

          • Since every murder is not "normal" behavior, your claim becomes that all murderers suffer from some type of "mental problem." Even outside of the capital punishment argument, that's dangerously close to saying no one is ever completely responsible for their criminal actions. Ridiculous.

          • Beyond self-defence, it's not 'normal' behavior.

            Even one murder in a moment of anger is called 'temporary insanity'.

            You'd just like someone to blame and punish…which is no answer at all.

          • Actually it is an answer, because with most murders someone IS to blame and someone ought to be punished. Some guy snapping and killing his girlfriend during a fight is not "insane" – he's a bastard.

            I find it incredible that you'd use the occasional instance of true mental illness to absolve pretty much any murderer of his or her culpability.

          • Well it's your simplistic answer…kill em back….but it's not a solution.

            Normal rational people don't just 'suddenly' snap and kill someone…something else is going on, and has been for sometime.

            Humans can do better than this.

          • And to the extent Bernardo is human, of course people "like" him are born everyday. It's his actions that deserve justice. I'm still unclear on how anything you advocate would prevent him from doing what he did.

          • Of course he's human….you thought he was a Martian?

            Humans have tortured and killed throughout history…at times it's been praised, as in the Spanish Inquisition. Or a war.

            At times it's been condemned, as with Bernardo.

            But they're all humans, and it's time to find out why humans do it.

            If we don't know the cause, we can't find a cure. And the problem will continue.

          • Humans kill for all sorts of reasons. Rage, jealousy, greed, sadistic pleasure, whatever. There's no "cure" for murderers. There is a solution.

            (And unlike you, I won't lump soldiers in the battlefield who kill with people who commit murder. There are moral, ethical and legal distinctions.)

          • Mentally ill people are a reality, and of course there's a cure.

            Murdering them isn't it.

            It's all murder you know….whether it's state sanctioned or not.

          • All killing is murder? Is killing in self-defence "murder"?

          • Self-defence is the sole justification for murder or war.

            Then the question becomes….why is the other person/country attacking?

          • If they're attacking to rape and murder you, then they deserve to die. If they succeed, then the state should take care of them.

          • I repeat…the question is why they would do that?

          • Fine. Let's say the answer is a hatred of women. Your response would be something along the lines of "then we need to fix society's ills, etc." Which may be a fair enough point, but it's not an excuse or justification. Your attempts to "explain" the evil actions of others in all instances is futile, and only serves to excuse or justify their criminal behavior.

          • Men get raped and murdered too.

            It's wrong no matter who does it….but until we find out WHY they do it, we have no chance of stopping it.

          • You seem to think there's one objective "reason" why people do it and that whatever that reason is, it's beyond their control. You've decided individuals can't be responsible for their own actions. We'll never find some magical cure that prevents crime.

          • No, there is no 'one mental illness' fits all. Anymore than there is one physical illness.

            The problem is in diagnoses and treatment for whichever mental illness the person has.

            Of course we can do that. We've already made headway. There are drugs now for many mental problems.

            We just have a long way to go.

            The answer isn't 'magic', it's science. And we'll never find cures if we just throw our arms in the air and say, 'It can't be done, so kill em back'.

    • That leaves us with prolonged incarceration, ironically enough paid for by victims through taxation.

      Just to be clear though, ANY punishment is paid for by taxpayers, and therefore, ironically, by the victims, and in most Western democracies who still have the death penalty (i.e. the United States) executing a prisoner costs CONSIDERABLY more than keeping them in jail until they die would. On the purely economic argument of saving taxpayer money, life-long incarceration would be the way to go.