Capital Punishment and the Social Contract
‘Humane execution’ seems like a contradiction in terms to some of us, but the concept has been around for several centuries. When Joseph-Ignace Guillotin invented the device that would be named after him it was an effort to make executions more speedy and less painful for the condemned. Likewise when the measured drop and long drop forms of hanging were created in the 19th century. Throughout the 20th century the U.S. tried several forms of speedy execution, including the gas chamber, the electric chair and now, lethal injection. It seems that the general public, with plenty of dissenters, has come to believe that our ultimate form of punishment should be swift and not something more akin to torture.
The botched/failed/incompetent execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday night has once again brought the issue of capital punishment to the front of American discourse. I weighted in on the issue last August so I won’t tread the same ground here. I will, however, indulge myself by re-quoting Jeffery Toobin (via our own Christopher Carr):
“The oxymoronic quest for humane executions only accentuates the absurdity of allowing the death penalty in a civilized society. It’s understandable that Supreme Court Justices have tried to make the process a little more palatable; and there is a meager kind of progress in moving from the chair to the gurney. But the essential fact about both is that they come with leather straps to restrain a human being so that the state can kill him…”
We can agree to disagree about the morality of capital punishment however I am much more concerned by the types of comments I heard from Facebook acquaintances after news broke about Lockett’s execution. They said things like, “He deserved to suffer,” and “He got off easy compared to his victim.” Perhaps this is true. I cannot with any truth say that I would not wish horrible suffering for someone if they did what he did to a member of my family. What I also know though is that we are a society built on agreements between the government and the people and one of those agreements is that if the government decides to kill you for a crime you committed, they pledge not to torture you in the process.
We have heard the arguments that keeping people in prison for life is cheaper than executions. Many people would also say that painful and public executions would be much more of a deterrent than a current system that keeps people on death row for years and then puts them to sleep before they end their life. Again, this is probably true. That isn’t going to happen though, no matter how much some people would like to see it. So how do we move forward?
In the absence of a federal ban on capital punishment something must be done to improve the current process. Drug companies are going to be even less inclined to assist than before after this incident, knowing that public scrutiny will no doubt link them with the next failed execution. If we insist that lethal injection is the method-of-choice, it must be done without incident every single time or the grim social contract of humane execution will be further exposed for the farce it really is. If we adopt something more efficient, perhaps firing squads, it is hard to imagine the public supporting this as a reasonable alternative. In the meantime, more and more inmates are freed with new DNA evidence and capital punishment seems like one more relic of the previous century that we are holding on to for all the wrong reasons.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.