Thursday, March 18, 2010

Executions in Iran and North Korea

Students of the sociology of punishment are getting the rare opportunity to look back into the history of penal evolution by watching the penal behavior of two polities that are arguably throwbacks to the absolutist model of government, Iran and North Korea.

According to Nazila Fathi's reporting in the NYTimes, Iran's government was preparing to execute six protesters arrested in December protests this Sunday, for the charge of "waging war against God."

Meanwhile, AP reports that North Korea has executed a former treasure official, not for bribery, but because of the failure of his currency reforms.

Pak was accused of ruining the nation's economy in a blunder that also damaged public opinion and had a negative impact on leader Kim Jong Il's plan to hand power over to his youngest son, Yonhap said.

In his germinal article, Two Laws of Penal Evolution (1902) [for a translation published in 1973, not free unfortunately), Emile Durkheim predicted that the general trend toward leniency in punishment, by which he meant the shift away from capital punishment in particular, and toward less intense punishment of all kinds, had exceptions. Two were when states embraced either theocracy or revanchist forms of absolutism. For the general principle of leniency reflects the rise of the individual as the moral center of penal retribution and away from a demand to punish as away of responding for an affronted God or Sovereign. The US may seem an outlier for executing murderers, but we do so in manner that Durkheim would think quite consistent with our liberal values (mainly an effort to honor the victim and protect others, although a misguided one in my view). In Iran offending God (or his political party) and in North Korea, to interfere with the passing of royal succession remain capital crimes.

One detail of the Iranian case is particularly interesting for Durkheimians. Apparently Sunday is being chosen because it marks the beginning of a Halloween like traditional festival that the Islamic regime considers "unIslamic."

The tradition, the Feast of Fire, goes back thousands of years to Zoroastrian times and has been banned in Iran in recent decades because of its non-Islamic roots. The opposition had called for its celebration this year as a sign of protest.

My bet is neither of these Dinosaur like regimes will be around in twenty years (or perhaps even ten) so students get busy studying them (a bit hard, I admit).

For those following my Legal Studies 160: Punishment, Culture and Society course, who are really bored over Spring break, my question to you is how would Marxist or Foucauldian analysts see the use of capital punishment in recent weeks by these two regimes?


  1. Hi Professor Simon,

    Thank you for your interesting post. Indeed, Iran's broad use of the death penalty requires more academic attention. Durkheim and Foucault provide great insights into understanding an authoritarian regime and its use of the death penalty as a "political technique" to consolidate "social solidarity".

    Ben O.

  2. Most Marxist countries have used the death penalty (or mass murder) in the past as a way to stop dissidents by either killing them out right or the use of this tool to persuade them to not oppose the Marxist leadership. They use this in an extreme way to completely shutout anyone who opposes their domination of their country.

    Thankfully, the far-left Marxist wing of the Democratic party in America has not shown a desire to use this tool to control the rest of us.