Thursday, May 01, 2014

On Executions

Following the disastrously botched execution in Oklahoma, I'm as appalled as anyone.  But I'm not surprised; the human race is distressingly predictable.  I do, however, agree with Charlie Pierce that it was an "act of fucking barbarism."

Consider this map of the countries that still execute prisoners, published in the Washington Post (from Amnesty International) in April 2013.  Is that the company we really want to be in?  You'd think the fact that nobody wants to sell American state governments the drugs they need should tell them something - but Americans only seem to listen to the market when it tells them something they want to hear.

There are no good reasons for killing a criminal, even a disgusting murderer.  We execute, when we execute, as a pure act of revenge.  An eye for an eye.  People say it's to "deter them" - no dead murderer has ever re-offended that I know of - but statistics don't support it.  Texas, which executes more people than any other state, doesn't have a lower rate of capital crime than Michigan, which doesn't execute.  You can Google the research for yourself.  So we kill them - because we can.  I hate to say, because it makes us feel good - but I think that's part of it, for some people.

Why is killing criminals bad?  They did awful things, why shouldn't they die?  I could go into all the discussions, but I think the real reason the state should not kill criminals is the effect on the citizens of the state.  The state, after all, is us - government by the people.  So we, corporately, assume the right to decide who shall live and who shall die.  This is a corrupting act.  It encourages us to think that we're "better than them."  It also encourages us not to ask whether we may have been mistaken in convicting them; and there is evidence that sometimes we are.  KQED's Forum this morning discussed a research study which concluded that 4.1%, or about 1 in 25, prisoners on death row are probably not guilty of the crimes they were convicted for.

And why do we kill them in secrecy?  The official argument is that it's to protect the prisoner's privacy.  Yeah, right.  In truth, the state employees who carry out the killings, and their management, don't want the general public to be fully aware of what they're doing.  And the public collaborates in this corporate lie to itself.  A couple of years ago, in an op-ed in the NY Times, Zachary Shemtob and David Lat argued that executions should be televised.  I agree with them - if we're going to kill people at all, we should do it in public:  "Ultimately the main opposition to our idea seems to flow from an unthinking disgust — a sense that public executions are archaic, noxious, even barbarous."  Well, exactly.  We kill people - in Oklahoma's recent case, with no idea whether the new drugs would actually work or not - but we don't want the public to know about it except for a sterile notice, without photos, in the newspapers, after it's all over.  We even have a special word for it - "execution" - so we won't have to say that we kill people.  After I realized that I edited the post to replace "execution" with some form of "kill people," except where I'm quoting.

Furthermore, our insistence on secrecy and privacy in killing people makes us ignore a well-known and well-documented method of killing, instantaneous and close to painless, which would obviate the need to buy drugs that nobody wants to sell you.  It doesn't even require electrical power, which could go out at the wrong time.  I'm talking about the guillotine.  Oh, but that's ugly and messy.  So is what they did the other day in Oklahoma.  It isn't "public" killings that are "archaic, noxious, even barbarous" - it is the official killing of people.

If we're going to kill people at all, we should do it in the light of day, in a quick and painless manner.  If we aren't willing to do that, we should not kill them.  Let us remove ourselves from the company of China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and stop killing people as a function of the state.

We should stop killing people, period, but I know too much about the human race to expect that will ever happen.