A Rational Argument for
the Return of the Guillotine
At present, we have over 3,000 criminals on Death Row in
the United States, with the average delay before execution
about 12 years. Some continue to get stays of execution
because their guilt is not certain, while others prolong the
inevitable through endless legal chicanery.
But most often, execution is delayed simply because the state’s
method of execution has been deemed cruel and unusual by the
courts. In fact, lethal injection, the gas chamber, and
electrocution all have serious flaws. There must be a better way—
something fast, sure, something not subject to bungling.
Ancient Rome maintained order in its occupied countries with the
promise of certain, supremely painful retribution. It searched the
world over to find the most visual and agonizing method of
executing a man publicly, that his death would in turn deter
others from repeating his crime. Ultimately, they found
crucifixion, with two variations: tying the offender to the cross
with ropes, or nailing him. Nailing was by far the more humane
way to go, with death coming within hours. But those tied to the
cross died a truly agonizing death: over the next three or four
days their lungs slowly collapsed, with each breath more difficult
than the previous.
The Shoguns of Japan maintained order by using public
dismemberment for minor infractions. Boiling more serious
offenders to death was popular when a special point needed to
be made, with the heat slowly increasing over a period of eight
hours or so to maximize the suffering by prolonging the agony,
thus increasing its effectiveness as a deterrent.
English Kings loved to draw and quarter those who dared
challenge their rule. The Chinese favored Death by 1,000 Cuts.
During the French Revolution, when it became necessary to
execute King Louis XVI, his court and nearly everyone connected
with it, a method of execution was needed that was swift and
sure, yet humane.
The solution was brilliant in its elegance and simplicity: the
guillotine. Swift, undeniably certain, and fun for almost everyone
Surveys indicate that about 60 percent of Americans support
the death penalty for those convicted of first-degree murder.
Still, there are many fine arguments against the death penalty,
and this essay is not an attempt to overcome them. It may very
well be that the death penalty should be abolished forever;
however, if we are going to continue to execute our fellow man,
let’s do it as cleanly and benignly as possible.
As a method of execution, the guillotine is near perfect. It is
quick. It is absolutely certain, and by all medical estimates,
painless. It is neither cruel nor unusual.
It offers several advantages over every other method.
Death is pretty damned certain when your head is no longer
attached to anything.
There is no toxic cleanup, as with the gas chamber. No tell-tale
power-surge throughout the prison when “Ol’ Sparky” sends its
occupant to the next world. No messy injections with the
inevitable missed vein.
Furthermore, the guillotine is environmentally green. It produces
no toxic by-products, leaving only two bio-degradable parcels to
be disposed of, and no massive waste of electricity, either—
something Al Gore would certainly approve.
We could even force the victim to hoist the blade into position.
The machine itself is simple and cheap to make, with only one
Maintenance is easy; a swipe or two with a sharpening stone
before each use and we’re ready to go.
There are other advantages. Taking into account humanity’s
appetite for viewing the unusual, such as “The Maury Povich
Show” or anything featuring Rosie O’Donnell, executions will be a
guaranteed hit on TV, becoming a national institution like
“American Idol.” Fox is certain to run them.
Families would gather around on execution nights in front of the
TV, perhaps the first Tuesday of every month. Imagine Mom,
Dad, and the kids watching raptly, and just as a head rolls, the
father sagely advises his children, “See what happens when you
don’t respect authority? Do you want to end up like that?”
One can hardly imagine a deterrent more effective than watching
a disembodied head plop into a waiting wicker basket.
The resultant advertising revenues could fund compensation to
crime victims and their families. And we could sell logo rights.
Imagine “Gillette” in flowing script right on the blade, with the
slogan, “We never fall on the same neck twice.”
The benefits are obvious and several, with no drawbacks. Let’s
bring back the guillotine. Truly it is an idea whose time has
by Dan Elliott Jr.
Dan Elliott Jr. is working on a novel
about a man who mysteriously gains
the power to heal people with just his
touch, but is used by politicians, the
media and the legal system—as well
as by organized religion—until
ultimately he is mocked as the Anti-
Christ. Dan lives in the San Francisco
area and can be contacted at