The Executioner


Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

Related Post Roulette

28 Responses

  1. Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

    Fine writing, Burt. It created feelings in my that I don’t quite know how to describe. There’s something coldly horrifying about death being turned into a procedure; into just a job to do.Report

    • Thanks, Rod. I’ve difficulty expressing how terrifying posting this was.

      Lethal injections are, or until very recently were, done in a number of states by doctors or medical techs who are not only unaware of whether they are manipulating the actual lethal agents or saline, but are actually in a different room from the “patient” and can see no one else involved in the procedure. I imagined the three-window administration theater for dramatic purposes.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Rod Engelsman says:

      Ditto this.

      I don’t know how many comments you’re going to get on this Burt, it’s a thought provoking piece but a very internal one.Report

  2. Avatar Damon says:

    Well done Burt.

    Just a few comments:

    “There’s something coldly horrifying about death being turned into a procedure; into just a job to do.”


    “I did my duty, son.”

    The guards in the camps did their duty too.

    “He is guilty. A jury said so, and about a dozen judges couldn’t find any reason to say otherwise. If that weren’t true, both he and us wouldn’t be there in the first place.”

    Yep, because the system is perfect and never makes mistakes. The self righteous tell themselves lies so they can dismiss their own guilt.Report

    • Avatar ScarletNumber in reply to Damon says:

      Godwin’s LawReport

      • Avatar Damon in reply to ScarletNumber says:

        Nope, it’s actually on point.

        The executioner is doing his job. He’s a minor functionary within the state. How many times have you heard this excuse because someone didn’t want to rock the boat, get involved, or stand up and do the right thing? I was following orders, instructions, what I was told.

        “Remember that howsoever you are played, or by whom, your soul is in your keeping alone. Even though those who presume to play you be kings or men of power. When you stand before God, you cannot say “but I was told by others to do thus” or that “virtue was not convenient at the time.” This will not suffice. Remember that.”Report

  3. Avatar Major Zed says:

    (+10) My heart is still tight in my chest, minutes after reading this.
    (-1) 50-year old man with 60- and 65-year old parents?
    (+2) “A razor-thin scimitar of the moon hung low in the sky.”Report

  4. Avatar Vikram Bath says:

    I’m not sure if there is supposed to be a single interpretation of the ending, but here was what I came up with.

    Greg questions his religion. Presumably this is a reaction to the grand power he was able to assert with no satisfactory explanation of why he was able to assert it. E.g., he was let into the facility because his name was on a list. He was a surgeon because his hands stay steady when nervous. We feel like being able to exert Big, Important Responsibilities should happen for Big, Important Reasons. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Greg saw through this lie.

    The most obvious reason for Greg to crave sex afterwards is to demonstrate to himself that he is still alive. I can’t think of any other “normal” explanations. It seems unlikely that this is deviant behavior because Greg’s thoughts seem otherwise normal. Well, normal for a guy who might volunteer for such a task.

    Why does Greg ask his wife not to leave? I haven’t figured this one out. My hypotheses in order of likelihood are:
    (1) He wants to know whether he is still “good”. If she leaves, he is not.
    (2) He wants the evidence of his being alive around a bit longer. That was the whole point of the sex, and if she washes up, it will be erased.
    (3) He is grieving and simply wants the company.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

      Craving sex after seeing people die is instinctual
      (and kinda dates back to our rat-like ancestors).
      Why else do people get off on vore?Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Vikram Bath says:

      I’m particularly interested in peoples’ thoughts about this segment of the piece. I find it difficult to restrain myself from substantively adding to the discussion so as to allow others to work with it on their own, yet I also find that I must do so lest the piece not stand on its own.Report

      • Avatar Rod Engelsman in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I’ve tried my hand at the fictional short story form and a good ending is the hardest part to craft. Some stories have a natural ending point, a twist or reveal, and others don’t. In this case, if it was me writing it, I’m not sure I would have taken it much past the actual execution and just let the reader explore on their own how they would have felt about it and handled those feelings.

        Don’t take this is a criticism so much as just my expression of a different artistic choice I would have personally made.Report

  5. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    Well done, Burt.

    It does raise a question that I ask myself from time to time: “Why do we put medical or other personnel through this?” Way back in the 70s, when computer room techs would put their heads under a raised floor where the space had been flooded by a halon leak, that you pass out without knowing it’s happening and then quietly suffocate. Even earlier, when I worked in an ag field lab where we had several cylinders of dry nitrogen in the small building, we had oxygen sensors because a large leak from a pressure regulator could lower the oxygen level to the point you would pass out and suffocate without ever noticing the problem. A variation on the theme is marketed (or at least, how-to guides published) for painless suicide. Certainly we could implement this on a room-sized level. Since carrying out the sentence in such a case would involve no more than flipping a switch, it could be done by, say, the prosecutor who sought the death penalty.Report

    • Avatar Rod Engelsman in reply to Michael Cain says:

      I have the same questions. Isn’t participating in an execution a violation of the Hippocratic Oath? Now Burt dealt with that issue to some degree it seems with the exchange between the condemned and Greg:

      “You became a doctor to save lives, didn’t you, Emory?” Washington said, his tone lower than it had been in the staging room.

      “I am saving lives tonight.” This was a challenge Greg had anticipated, he had his answer at the ready.

      So he’s rationalized his actions by considering the execution to be analogous to excising a tumor or applying an anti-biotic to the “body” of society. I appreciate the logic of this and can’t actually disagree too strenuously to the principle at least, but his actions following the execution seem to indicate that he doesn’t quite buy it himself, at least not at the gut level.


      Your suggestion for execution by painless suffocation seems like a decent suggestion to me, if we’re to continue executing people that is, which I oppose. I think we have to ask ourselves what purpose the death penalty serves that isn’t served just as well by life without parole, especially given that the latter preserves the option of reversal in the case of erroneous conviction.

      If the aim is simply retribution and vengeance then it’s hard for me to see how this bloodless, sanitized, “putting the dog to sleep” sort of execution, one or two decades after the initial conviction, serves even that dubious purpose.

      If the aim is deterrence I would submit to you that, again, a gentle sloughing off into that good night, long after the crime has drifted from the public consciousness, hardly serves the purpose.Report

  6. Avatar Roger Ferguson says:

    Thank you, Mr. Likko. Pieces like that are why I come here. Perhaps I could comment further some day, but for the moment I have no words, and nothing even approaching thoughts, except for the recognition that you have done something of remarkable power.Report

  7. Avatar Wyrmnax says:


    Well. I feel my stomach twisting and clenching inside.Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The news just came in: Fort Hood shooting jury recommends death penalty for Nidal HasanReport

    • Avatar NotMe in reply to Jaybird says:

      While I support the death penalty they shouldn’t have given to Hasan for the simple reason that he wants to be a martyr. Of course I doubt Obama would confirm the sentence anyway, which he is required to do in military death cases. Heck, the DOD won’t even classify this as a terrorist attack but instead calls it workplace violence which screws survivors out of some benefits. I wonder how many of the lefty anti death penalty folks will be out protesting against his execution if it ever comes to pass?Report

  9. Avatar Jeff Lipton says:

    Excellent story — very thought-provoking.

    In a way, this sort of execution absolves all authorities, including the doctors, of much of the moral searching, which I think they need.


    As for why the doctor didn’t want his wife to wash up was that he was thinking that they might create a life to replace the life that he took.Report

  10. Avatar Jeff Lipton says:

    Missing “my thought was” thereReport

  11. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    This was extremely well-written, powerful prose.

    Now, I am going to completely destroy the entire story and all of your future dreams by saying that I don’t think Sprite has caffeine. Please forgive me…Report