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.


  1. one of the things I imagine we'll get around to some day.

    A couple of people on Facebook pointed out that patients are anesthetized for surgery all the time and things like the Oklahoma horror don't happen. Well, yes, surgical patients are treated by medical professionals who get lots of practice; who administers lethal drugs to prisoners? I understand that medical professionals won't do it, and probably aren't allowed to. There must be checks and double-checks in medicine that the prison system also doesn't have. But the most compelling difference would be that a surgical patient is expected to live to tell the tale - probably to a lawyer, if something is botched badly.

    The guillotine is better than the hangman with a huge ax, who sometimes missed and took several whacks to finish the job (didn't Thomas More's executioner miss the first time?). Better we shouldn't do it at all; but there's bad and there's worse and if we're going to kill people we ought to find a semi-humane way to do it.

    From what I've read of public hangings in the past, I'm not sure I want to revive that custom. Wouldn't the modern equivalent turn into a really hideous kind of television spectacular?

  2. Once again, I failed to understand how blogspot works & left off the first half sentence. The sentence was intended to read:

    "Ever" is too long a word for me, as Treebeard says. Eliminating capital punishment is one of the things i imagine we'll get around to some day.

    Hedera: Please fix this.

  3. Sorry, Aunt Stanbury, only you could have edited the comment. I think you've made yourself quite clear with your second comment.

    I agree, public hangings would turn into an awful spectacle; but then I consider almost everything on television an awful spectacle. And for the record, I was talking about public guillotining. Hanging is an awful way to kill someone.

  4. Hmm.

    I've never had a clear idea about the death penalty.

    Our society is obsessed with the psychology of criminality.

    So-called pre-civilized societies, and even medieval ones, posited the existence of infernal forces within people. That kind of makes sense if you accept that all human beings, as god's creatures, are basically innocent, though they may do bad things "under the influence" of evil.

    There are some who still think that "evil exists"--that there are some people who are simply born to do evil, to kill or do some kind of mischief.

    I think there are indeed such people--who we just can't trust to walk among us. We may call them mad, or we may call them evil, or we may not have a convenient explanation for what they do.

    There's the argument about how much it costs society to house and feed and clothe such loathsome people--a life-time's worth of support, at taxpayer expense. And what kind of life is it that these people lead, inside walls?

    I think there are certain loathsome people who don't deserve to live, after we've proven to our satisfaction that they've done what they've done. I think Saddam Hussein probably (well, "probably"?) deserved to die. What a miserable excuse for a human being. Or Osama bin Laden--who ordered the deaths of thousands of people in a single act.

    But then we have Hiroshima and Truman giving the order.

    We live in strange times.