The bungled execution in Oklahoma last week shines a light on the hypocrisy and brutality of capital punishment.
It shouldn’t be hard for the jailers of America to kill the people whom they have been ordered to kill. Over human history, people have devised many imaginative and effective methods.
Oklahoma and other states have encountered trouble because of difficulties in obtaining the combination of chemicals that will kill their prisoners in a way that is deemed humane. Instead, the prisoner in Oklahoma languished in pain on a gurney for 40 minutes until he had a heart attack that ended his ordeal. Prison officials were so embarrassed by the process that part way through it they lowered the blind on the window through which the gathered witnesses were observing.
There are alternatives. The generals of the Argentine junta during the so-called dirty war of the 1970s used to throw people out of airplanes. The Bulgarian secret police were said to have used a poison-tipped umbrella in a notorious murder on the streets of London. Regimes around the world use firing squads. Saudis use large swords.
The constitutional standard is that punishment must not be cruel and unusual. The chemical cocktail is viewed as more humane than other methods because it supposedly eases a person gently toward death, first sedating him, then stopping his heart and breathing. But from the point of view of the offender, there surely are ways that are quicker than the ordeal of the chemical cocktail. It all amounts to the same thing in the end. It is grotesque to imagine, but bullets probably achieve the sought-after end swiftly enough to be as humane as chemicals.
It is likely, however, that the states using lethal injection are not doing so to be kind to the prisoner. Rather, they are trying to obscure from themselves the reality of what they are doing.
If they shoot someone, they have a bloody mess to clean up. If they hang someone, they are compelled to watch the performance of a violent act. But if they watch a prisoner quietly go to sleep, it’s almost as if they are not killing someone at all.
And that is where they hypocrisy comes in. Jailers who perform capital punishment are committing a violent act. Human beings struggle to live, and overpowering the desire to live requires violent intervention. The brutality of the intervention is dehumanizing, even at its most humane. That is why executions are hidden away from the public and why corrections officials continue to look for chemicals that will seem nonviolent.
Those who are executed have generally committed heinous, violent acts themselves, which in the minds of many people is sufficient justification for the state to take their lives. It is an understandable and ancient response by those who have lost loved ones and by communities seeking protection against violence.
But the struggle to find a smooth, easy, humane way of committing the violence of execution suggests that our society remains uneasy about the violence it commits in the name of combating violence. A growing awareness of the shortcomings of our criminal justice system has compounded that uneasiness in recent years. DNA evidence has shown that a not insignificant number of people are sentenced to death row wrongly. Also, statistics have shown a consistent racial bias in who gets sentenced to death and who does not.
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution establishes a standard that forbids cruel and unusual punishment, but that is not a hard and fast rule. The word “unusual” incorporates into the standard reference to community attitudes and standards. What is usual at one time may seem egregiously unusual at another time. In the Elizabethan era, people were disemboweled in public while they were still conscious and could watch.
That such a procedure would be highly unusual now is a sign that humane values have advanced over the centuries. In time, even the violence against the body performed by a lethal cocktail of chemicals injected into the veins may seem unworthy of a civilized nation.
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