Orwell worked as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in the late 1920's, stationed in Burma. It's there that he witnessed and assisted the execution of an Hindu man, one of many lined up in cells awaiting death via hanging. Whether or not the man was guilty or innocent was not Orwell's concern. Actually, he doesn't even bring up the legal justice (or flight from) anywhere in the essay, he simply observes the officers' behavior, as well as the man about to die. He suspends legal analysis and judgment. That may seem like an innocuous detail--even potentially harmful--but let me point out that if our modern culture so much as suspects a flight from legal justice, it reaches newspapers, websites, and blogs within an hour, despite hard evidence. That's not to say Orwell doesn't think about right and wrong, but in leaving the law to the side he creates the opportunity for a more direct human understanding.
On page 17 he writes, "It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees...And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path." This is the second time I've read this essay, and once again I'm struck by this passage. Why would the man heading for the noose care if he got wet? Habit? Dislike of the sensation? Or was he just so at peace with his fate that he'd continue to care for himself and his surroundings the way he did when he had the freedom interact with them?
It seems Orwell was affected similarly. He continues in the next paragraph, "It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive...He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone--one mind less, one world less."
A party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, and understanding the same world. Is that not a common denominator of our human experiences no matter our particular situation, condition, and financial status? It's easy to point of differences in others, and if you've ever read Rush Dozier's amazing book Why We Hate, you understand that focusing on differences breeds aggression, hostility, and a caustic "them" attitude that for the most part engages our primitive mind exclusively. (That's not the smart one...)
The essay came to a close with the police--including Orwell--feeling a sense of relief. So much so that several of the men laugh gaily, and all agreeing to go get a drink. Now these were not unpracticed men, and would be back within a week or two to execute another. It's not like America, where it takes years of being on death row. In Burma in the late '20's things were hurried along and cleaned up after to repeat. You had to move forward. Yet, Orwell was clear that as the event progressed, the Imperial Police were indeed affected by the execution but couldn't articulate it. He was probably the only one who saw past the flesh and cries. Still, the officers moved forward I suspect because all in all, they could. They saw how one snap of the neck separates our thoughts, dreams, and convictions from darkness.
The last line reads, "The dead man was a hundred yards away."
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