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Off With Their Heads

Another botched execution in the United States has revived the debate about capital punishment, or so the newspapers tell me. 

But if there is such a debate its nature requires qualification.  If the commentators mean that once more an argument has arisen between proponents of the death penalty and abolitionists, they are wide of the mark.  Those battle lines were drawn a century ago and have hardly changed over the intervening years.  That much has been confirmed by countless and regular opinion polls showing that a huge and unwavering majority of Americans (and Britons, I might add) favour the death penalty in numbers representing anywhere between sixty and seventy percent of the adult population. 

The minority may well, and understandably, be exploiting a recent string of cock-ups in American death chambers as an excuse to put forward ancient ethical arguments with even more determination, but that is not what presently exercises the American public.  Abolitionists are excluded from the discussion, because it is focused not on whether the death penalty should be maintained, but by what means it should be administered. 

Proponents of the death penalty are, on the other hand, deeply divided among themselves.  Though unanimous in the belief that putting a convicted person to death is the right thing to do, they are at odds over whether the methods used are proper or improper, that is to say humane or cruel.  And underlying that question is a subsidiary one, which in crude terms may be expressed as whether it actually matters one way or the other. 

What may be deduced from this is that death penalty proponents fall into two broad categories: the squeamish and the bloodthirsty.

The issue arises because Arizona, under due process of law, has this week administered to one Joseph Wood, who murdered his former girlfriend and her father, a mixture of lethal chemicals that took the best part of two hours to complete the job of rendering him dead.  During that time, according to some witnesses, Mr. Wood coughed and gasped for air.  There are alternative accounts, including that of a spokesman for the state’s district attorney, which maintain that Mr. Wood’s exhalations, however tortuous they may have appeared, were no more than the snores of a sleeping man.

Gasping or snoring, the man was still clinically alive, and half way through the execution, Mr. Wood’s lawyers actually left the witness room to call a judge to halt the execution.  Whether this was a ploy to make a political point by gaining an indefinite stay of execution, or an attempt to stop the procedure merely so that a new one could be started, is irrelevant, and anyway not what the judge was asked to determine.  Either way, Mr. Wood’s lawyers claimed that their client was suffering, and the procedure ought to be stopped on the grounds that continuing put Arizona in blatant conflict with the eighth amendment of the American Constitution, prohibiting ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment.

Mr. Woods died.

The squeamish now demand a return to tried and true methods of execution that are swift and painless.  There has been much talk of replacing lethal injections with trusted methods such as the electric chair, or the gas chamber, or the firing squad (all of which are still used in various states). There are even advocates for introducing the guillotine, the swiftest and most reliable known means of causing instant death – though some would no doubt rule this out as a reversion to a foreign barbarism.  Better, perhaps, the Chinese practice of a shot to the back of the head. 

State officials are open to such proposals because the supplies of the chemicals used in executions are being withheld, the manufacturers reluctant to provide them for this purpose, either for ethical reasons, or because they fear reprisals from users of other products, or the risk of exposure to shareholder suits.  Alternative chemicals have been found, presumably from alternative sources, but the alchemists commissioned by the authorities to produce the lethal cocktails have yet to refine a reliable product.  If more research is required, the states concerned – mainly those from the southern half of the country – then the necessary resources will no doubt be provided.

Over in the bloodthirsty camp, no such qualms exist.  Here the theme – a literal interpretation of an eye-for-an-eye – is one of ‘appropriate revenge’.  In other words, the objective should not be to waste money trying to find a painless killing drug but to put the condemned through agonies as close as possible, or at least as painful, to those experienced by their victims; preferably worse.  Bring back the rack, and the ducking stool, and the stake, they cry, because hanging, shooting, electrocuting and gassing are far too quick.  As for lethal injection, botched or not, that is something of a doddle – far more than the condemned deserve.

The Governor of the State of Arizona, Jan Brewer, resolutely flies the flag for those who lust for blood.  When asked for a response to Mr. Wood’s death throes, she asked, rhetorically but apparently to wide acclaim among her constituents, why a dying man’s coughs should be considered important against the pain his victims had gone through?

If at this stage you are expecting an editorial comment from this writer, I must leave you disappointed.  My excuse is that some arguments simply defy a reasoned contribution.  Anyway, the tone of the above essay rather gives away my position, even if you had been unaware of it.

This week’s events – the downed passenger airliner above the Ukraine, the rocket attacks on civilians in Gaza, among others – show how far the creation of a civilized society lies beyond our grass.

Against these outrages, involving the murder of hundreds, should the final gasps of a convicted murderer matter?  

Don’t ask me, ask the profoundly philosophical Governor Brewer.   

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