The executions. Death in the first person

By Horacio González


Fabián Narvaja

Director comercial

About the book:

Horacio González is one of the most influential Argentinian thinkers of the last decades. A sociologist and essayist, he served as director of the National Library. This is one of the last books he wrote before he died in 2021. In this work, he somehow condenses his particular “method” to approach the issues he wished to raise, establishing multiple and original links between historical facts and various cultural productions from Argentina and abroad. “Executions” –that particular form of political violence that Horacio analyzes in representations by Goya, Rosellini and other emblematic cases– is the topic used as a starting point from where he develops his thoughts.


MANET Not unknown to anyone is the image of a man tied to a post, probably against a paint-chipped backdrop, facing death in the form of a firing squad. There may be no post and only part of an execution wall, paredón, an unwelcoming word indeed, although in the lyrics of a famous tango, that Spanish word means a passage to eternity. It makes reference to a vague space and time. Behind the wall, an indefinite beyond. But that man tied to the post may or may not be blindfolded, he may be himself the one to give the firing order. Is he allowed to do so? Are there not others who refuse to be blindfolded or tear their shirts open defiantly? These details indicate  that our range of options regarding our own death is narrowed down when facing a firing squad. We die with subtle variations, because in those firearms awaiting the order, fate is already impatient. But these weak nuances denote that at least somebody or something is making a choice. No doubt, once in front of the executioners, our chances for exhibiting our last dignity of courage are very small. But conclusive. A simple gaze, boldly held beyond abjuration or sadness, is enough to be free for just a second. The bullet coming out of the black muzzle of the rifle does not take long to reach us, but carries a punishment that can make you a hero or sink you into oblivion. In the latter case, a common pit will possibly commingle the bones of the anonymous offered in sacrifice with the famous one. Memorial gatherings should figure out how to assemble the bones of several humans into the imaginary carcass of a single man, the martyr that is to stand out –a rotten skeleton, a puzzle consisting of pieces from all the executed bodies lying on the ground. If a horizontal crossbeam is added to the pole where the sentenced body is tied, the man placed on his back with his arms wide open and his feet together may turn out to have his hands and feet nailed to the ends of the wooden bars. This is the universal skeletal model of a human body, with the arms open and the feet –one foot over the other– nailed to the vertical log. A wooden body. When blood is added to it by means of grievous pegs, the instrument of punishment paradoxically returns as a seal and insignia of mystical piety. The punished person merges with the wooden crossbars and becomes an eminent symbol of devotion. Not always or not in any manner are the conditions given for an instrument of torture that blends with the human body we wish to humiliate when we hang them  –a hanged man does not bring religion, nor does an executed man– to become the icon to worship the universal victim. But if that body becomes untouched, because it already was, the body of the person shot is not known, in any scene, to have been placed on a cross. His stiff image in front of the rifles, straight figures resulting from complex industrial processes, in the industrialization era, resounds in our spirit with a lonely tear, barely accompanied by a stroke of fear. If the crucified man has his vast literature, the most intricate we know, written by the great masters of symbolism and esotericism, the executed man, who is not sacred,  still has his grand pages written out of obsession rather than reverence. This is because the shooting is a grandiose show conceived of as a visible means of punishment, with its restrained cruelty and its horror capable of summoning codes and orders. The homo sacer is not a shot man, as he is reserved for easy crime and is not allowed to be offered to the gods, because he is already the sacred man who, behind his faint investiture, has the power of a curse. He is a poor social residue and a long-forgotten figure of the sacred world. He can be stoned, but unlikely shot down. Among other reasons, due to the spectacular origin of shootings, so many times frustrated. Shootings are not meant to be a mass; that is the ultimate punitive reason intended for priests to accompany the sacrificed without asking about the military institution of prosecutions, which compete with the psalms of resurrection, only that in this case the shootings come out from firearms with the mission of putting an end to the lives deemed devoid of reasons to preserve their existence. Of the priests that accompany the shot man it could be said that their mission has never been more difficult, because if priesthoods really existed, they should be in the place of the one about to be shot down. Why at this very moment should I –the accompanying priest surely thinks– deliver the certainty that there is life after death, if this scene has no after, no later, no hope?  The spectacle of the shooting follows a strict ceremonial whose comforting routine is not always kept. So, our bewildered feelings remain hanging by a thread, not understanding the intrinsic justice of such act, since it is very easy to assume that wherever there is a shooting, there is no justice and nobody should make the sign of the holy cross on its behalf. But in the history of shootings, we are forced to think that, in a gloomy and invisible way, there was a tribunal in place, and we are urged to condemn the executioners and praise the executed, while others would choose the reverse option, if the cadre of shooters is formed to represent ancient and memorial victims returning for what is theirs. For example, we have the cries of Joaquín Penina, an anarchist bricklayer who was shot by the Army in 1930 in Rosario, a little before Di Giovanni was shot dead in Buenos Aires. We have these clamors and anathemas for any case where a political process of a restorative nature takes such radical measures against the members of the State’s secret police, who kidnapped, tortured and shot popular militants. The methods are almost the same, but in one case we can assume that the cruelty inherent in the government that orders and rewards such cruelties is likely to be prolonged.


Translated by Julia Benseñor / Edited by Laura Estefanía