Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Wedding is destiny,
And hanging likewise.
— John Heywood, Proverbs (1546)
June 24 was a big day in the Philippines. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed a bill abolishing the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, the signing brought to 25 the number of countries in the Asia-Pacific region and 125 worldwide that have ended capital punishment in law or practice. When signing the bill President Arroyo said: “We yield to the high moral imperative dictated by God to walk away from capital punishment.” Anticipating her meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican the following week she said: “When I meet the Holy Father soon in the Vatican, I shall tell him that we have acted in the name of life for a world of peace and harmony.”
In the United States God has taken a somewhat different approach. He believes that if the United States insists on standing against the rest of the world not only in its foreign policy but in its use of the death penalty, the death penalty, when imposed by lethal injection, should be a pleasant experience for all involved. (It is virtually impossible to make the invasion of foreign lands a pleasant experience for those invaded since those invaded are routinely killed and their property destroyed. ) To understand God’s and some scientists’ concerns, it is necessary to refresh readers’ memories as to why lethal injection gained favor over gas.
Many years ago in Arizona as a convict lay strapped to the gurney waiting for death dealing gas to fill the room, the curtain was pulled so that observers could enjoy the ritual. To their dismay, as the death inviting substance filled the chamber, slowly snuffing out the life of the prospective decedent, he did not respond by smiling cheerfully and mouthing friendly goodbyes to one and all but instead raised the middle finger of one hand, defiantly extended it towards the onlookers, and mouthed obscenities directed at them thus effectively spoiling their experience.
It was in response to that unfortunate display of bad manners that death by lethal injection was introduced. In recent times, however, that practice has also fallen into bad odor since it was discovered that the drugs used are not as pleasant for the victim as had long been believed. As a result of evidence suggesting the recipient of the favored drug concoction administered in the death chamber experienced discomfort, in May 2006 the United States Supreme Court heard arguments addressing the question of whether that constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
Because the United States is a very civilized country executioners are not waiting for the Supreme Court to speak. Instead they are trying to come up with a drug cocktail that viewer and victim alike will find pleasant, thus rendering a Supreme Court decision irrelevant. The difficulty in inventing the cocktail is balancing the needs and comfort of those watching executions and the needs and comfort of those being executed.
The issue was neatly framed by Denise Grady of the New York Times who described the dilemma in a June 23 article as follows: “At the core of the issue is a debate about which matters more, the comfort of prisoners or that of the people who watch them die. A major obstacle to change is that alternative methods of lethal injection, though they might be easier on convicts, would almost certainly be harder on witnesses and executioners. With a different approach, death would take longer and might involve jerking movements that the prisoner would not feel but that would be unpleasant for others to watch.”
If the experience can be made more pleasant for all involved, by using a different combination of drugs, there may be a benefit no one has discussed-live television of the execution. Up to now that has been impossible.
In 1991, KQED, a public television station in California went to court to get permission to place its cameras in San Quentin’s gas chambers to offer viewers live coverage of life’s end when the first execution scheduled to take place in that state since 1967 took place. It was unsuccessful. In 1994 Phil Donahue went to court to seek permission to film the execution of David Lawson in North Carolina. He, too, was unsuccessful. When, prior to his execution, Mr. Dawson commented on the suit filed by Mr. Donahue on his behalf he said he liked the idea of live coverage of his execution. He said it would give his life meaning. It would probably do the same for those who not only believe in the restorative powers of execution but also consider real live executions a form of entertainment. If we can’t model ourselves after the Philippines by banning the death penalty, at least we can let people see what it is less enlightened countries have banned.