Joseph de Maistre in Saudi Arabia

Via Suresh Naidu comes this news about our second staunchest ally in the Middle East:

Saudi Arabia is advertising for eight new executioners, recruiting extra staff to carry out an increasing number of death sentences, usually done by public beheading.

No special qualifications are needed for the jobs whose main role is “executing a judgment of death” but also involve performing amputations on those convicted of lesser offences, the advert, posted on the civil service jobs portal, said.

A man beheaded on Sunday was the 85th person this year whose execution was recorded by the official Saudi Press Agency, compared to 88 in the whole of 2014, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Amnesty said there were at least 90 executions last year.

Most were executed for murder, but 38 had committed drugs offences, HRW said.

Which, as Suresh points out, reminds us of this passage in Joseph de Maistre’s St. Petersburg Dialogues. Readers often get caught up in the heavy breathing, the blood and gore, of Maistre’s prose. But it’s the emphasis on the jobholding, material aspect of the executioner that’s really most important here. He’s a family man, he works for a wage, he eats his meal.

I am sure, gentlemen, that you are too accustomed to reflection not to have pondered often on the executioner. Who is then this inexplicable being who has preferred to all the pleasant, lucrative, honest, and even honorable jobs that present themselves in hundreds to human power and dexterity that of torturing and putting to death his fellow creatures? Are this head and this heart made like ours? Do they not hold something peculiar and foreign to our nature? For my own part, I do not doubt this. He is made like us externally; he is born like us but he is an extraordinary being, and for him to exist in the human family a particular decree, a FIAT of the creative power is necessary. He is a species to himself. Look at the place he holds in public opinion and see if you can understand how he can ignore or affront this opinion! Scarcely have the authorities fixed his dwelling-place, scarcely has he taken possession of it, than the other houses seem to shrink back until they no longer overlook his. In the midst of this solitude and this kind of vacuum that forms around him, he lives alone with his woman and his offspring who make the human voice known to him, for without them he would know only groans. A dismal signal is given; a minor judicial official comes to his house to warn him that he is needed; he leaves; he arrives at some public place packed with a dense and throbbing crowd. A poisoner, a parricide, or a blasphemer is thrown to him; he seizes him, he stretches him on the ground, he ties him to a horizontal cross, he raises it up: then a dreadful silence falls, and nothing can be heard except the crack of bones breaking under the crossbar and the howls of the victim. He unfastens him; he carries him to a wheel: the shattered limbs interweave with the spokes; the head falls; the hair stands on end, and the mouth, open like a furnace, gives out spasmodically only a few blood-spattered words calling for death to come. He is finished: his heart flutters, but it is with joy; he congratulates himself, he says sincerely, No one can break men on the wheel better than I. He steps down; he stretches out his blood-stained hand, and justice throws into it from a distance a few pieces of gold which he carries through a double row of men drawing back with horror. He sits down to a meal and eats; then to bed, where he sleeps. And next day, on waking, he thinks of anything other than what he did the day before.

And yet all grandeur, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner: he is the horror and the bond of human association.


  1. John T. Maher May 19, 2015 at 9:51 am | #

    The beheadings are both traditional cultural symbols as well as political atmospherics. The real issue here is are the Saudis discriminating as to religion or gender in hiring preference as the civil service positions embody the Sunni theocracy.Let’s liberalize that society as well through BDS!

    That and the nukes the Saudis are allegedly obtaining from Pakistan and already have possession and deniability thereof. de Maistre was amazing and I see him as sort of a monarchist anti Carl Schmidt.

  2. P.M.Lawrence May 20, 2015 at 3:26 am | #

    … the jobholding, material aspect of the executioner … he works for a wage …

    Actually, it was traditionally a fee based, contract, part time second job – piece work (the excerpt from de Maistre supports this rather than regular wages). In England, it used to be the custom that the hangman got the condemned man’s boots as his fee, if nobody else would pay it (which friends might, to buy less suffering; later, the Home Office paid the fee according to a schedule). This is a quibble for outsiders looking on, but since you are looking into a typical hangman’s self-image… indeed, in a second hand bookshop I saw a hangman’s memoirs in which he referred to those he hanged as “clients”.

  3. John Maher May 21, 2015 at 9:55 am | #

    It sounds like the Saudis are seeking a fordist model and do require full time executioners on quota to meet the demand for beheadingscsnd maiming. P. m. Lawrence is quite correct that the work then was more artisanal in terms of the relationship, economic social and political, to the homo sacer to borrow from agamben. In contrast the Saudi state essentially seeks an indifferent beaurocrat capable of projecting the states power in sufficient measure do as to ensure that control. He is no different than an American slaughterhouse worker.

  4. glk65 May 22, 2015 at 6:27 pm | #

    “No one is afraid of me. I have a lot of relatives, and many friends at the mosque, and I live a normal life like everyone else. There are no drawbacks for my social life.”


    British colonial Burma:

    I was once the only passenger in a Ford Explorer driven by a man who had come close to getting a lethal injection:

    We were going to a nearby restaurant after an anti-Death Penalty event. Some of those folks are still fighting that battle in Texas:

  5. Edward May 24, 2015 at 9:16 pm | #

    The de Maistre passage reminds me of a documentary about an American manufacturer of electric chairs, “Mr.Death “The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter”. It can be watched on youtube if anyone is interested:

    There was another movie I heard about a long time ago, “Death in America”, on this theme, but I can’t find anything about it on google.

    I hope this job notice is a sign of the weakness of the government.

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