In a world that finds it so easy to kill -- planes shot out of the sky, refugee centers shelled, suicide bombers sending body parts flying everywhere -– our prison system is having a heck of a time executing its prisoners on death row.
The latest botched execution left Joseph Wood III gasping his last breaths for several hours while his lawyers scurried around looking for a judge to stop the whole unseemly mess. They were too late and Wood finally died and Arizona joined a list of other states who can’t seem to cleanly kill their convicted murderers.
Well, dying can be hard. The body fights to live. And most normal human beings don’t relish or revel in the killing. Unless they live in Texas and/or are Governor, Rick Perry. Now, there’s a guy and a state that loves its executions, can’t wait to get the show on the road. Not for Texas those annoying stays of execution, not even for DNA testing that could prove innocence. Nosir, nosir, bring it on!
But a whole lot of other states have had serious enough questions about how the death penalty has been meted out. A gander at the disparity between incarceration rates for whites and blacks on run-of-the-mill drug charges should give anyone pause; both races use drugs approximately the same, but blacks are convicted and incarcerated at a much higher rate. Extrapolate that bias up to the ultimate punishment, toss in the growing number of innocent people who have been freed thanks to DNA , and it’s easy to see why many states are backing away.
And because dying’s hard, and messy and ugly, over the years we’ve tried to invent ways to make it “nice” so we could pretend to ourselves that we weren’t really “killing” someone, we were “putting them to sleep.” Except now drug companies no longer want their nice clean deadly drugs used in the process (bad publicity), doctors won’t go anywhere near the execution chambers, so we’re left with states scrambling around putting together all sorts of odd drugs that they hope will get the job done. And then getting all secretive about what they’re using until execution chambers are turning into Dr. Frankenstein labs with Monty Pythonesque Royal Executioners mixing up weird brews to try on the condemned – “More cowbell! More cowbell!”
Meanwhile we keep telling ourselves that the people the State’s killing on our behalf are Evil Incarnate, the Devil himself who must be erased from the face of the earth if civilization is to survive. But in our heart of hearts, most of us know that’s hokum. A close look at those executed shows only a small percent of truly dangerous, evil sociopaths. The rest are sad human failures, too often victims themselves of abuse and neglect, failed people whose messy lives and bad decisions have caused enormous misery to others.
And that begs the question: Is this sorry S.O.B. worth killing? Because that’s the other side of the equation that few want to consider: Killing is bad for the killer. Normal humans cannot ever totally escape the harm done to themselves when they cross one of mankind’s oldest taboos. While justification is there – It was a matter of life and death, it was self defense, he was judged and convicted and deserved it, it was war and I was a soldier, I was a policeman and was just doing my job – there always will be that small knife-pierce to the heart: I have done murder. And that knowledge will be a part of your soul forever.
So, no, killing isn’t easy. Which is why Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court, has proposed a quasi-Swiftian idea: Bring back the firing squad or guillotine. Stop making death look easy. As Kozinski notes, “ . . . executions are, in fact, brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should we. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”
So here we sit, Justice, American style, unequal for all. Commit the same crime and, depending on whether you’re black or white, rich or poor, which state you live in, you could be executed, or you could spend the rest of your life in prison. You could die quickly or you could spend hours gasping for breath. It’s pretty much a turkey shoot.
Which raises a final question: Is our whole justice system “cruel and unusual?” Then maybe that’s what we should be working on instead of searching for secret new lethal cocktails for our execution chambers.