Several months ago the world took great delight in a news report out of North Korea – a report that turned out to be bogus, predictably – that an uncle of the current dictator Kim Jong-Un was executed by the uniquely brutal method of being attacked by vicious dogs. Americans love stories of this type that allow our Enemies to be depicted as backward, subhuman savages. This gives us an opportunity for collective back-patting on account of being clearly the more civilized race.
Of course the collective laughter and feigned moral outrage encourages people to focus on the cartoonish evil of the North Korean regime and not, under any circumstances, to pause to reflect on the fact that the United States stands only with nations like North Korea and Iran in practicing capital punishment. I guess it makes us feel proud to tell ourselves that we do it…better? Nicer?
American voters and the people they elect love the death penalty because supporting it allows a bunch of soft, flabby-assed white guys to sound tough. But they're starting to run into some problems. The recent issues with lethal injection executions in Oklahoma and other states has the forces of capital punishment scrambling for alternatives here. One enterprising Utah legislator suggested bringing back the firing squad. On the political left there were the usual "Can you believe these savages" responses, focusing on the 8th Amendment's mandate against "cruel and unusual" punishment.
Here's the thing: why not bring back the firing squad? Or hanging? Or the guillotine? The act of state-sanctioned murder as the final step in a demonstrably imperfect and manipulable criminal justice system is itself cruel and, in the global sense, highly unusual. America abounds with that loathsome brand of Centrist that opposes the death penalty if it makes them feel bad and uncivilized about themselves but supports it if it is Nice and Humane (a word generally reserved for descriptions of the treatment of livestock). We need to abandon that delusion post-haste. Either we are killing people by act of the courts and legislatures or we are not. Once we have leaped the moral chasm to conclude that we're cool with legal murder based on the judgment of a twelve-yahoo jury and the testimony of law enforcement, the method hardly matters. So long as we're not actively and gratuitously torturing people to death, any reasonably quick method of causing death is as good as any other.
The focus on method, in other words, is an effort to take something awful and brutal and dress it up real pretty until it is acceptable fodder for dinner table conversations. Capital punishment suffers as a political issue for our tendency to argue about tangents. Is the death penalty "right"? Well who gives a shit about whether it is morally right or wrong when it and the entire justice system are demonstrably flawed in practice. Which method is the most humane? That's a red herring intended to condition people to accept the death penalty as inevitable by pushing the conversation forward to arguing style.
Is lethal injection cruel? Sure. So is the firing squad and the electric chair and every other method devised and put to use throughout our history. It is cruel inasmuch as capital punishment is cruel; our methods are barbaric inasmuch as the concept itself is barbaric. No amount of window dressing can make the act of killing the people least able to leverage social power and privilege over the justice system seem dignified. If all of our methods seem ugly it is because what we are doing is ugly.