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.

45 thoughts on “WINDOW DRESSING”

  • The thing that strikes me, if you ever corner someone who supports the death penalty and drill down to exactly why, it always ends up being some variation of revenge.

    The next thing that strikes me is that the person saying it also thinks that allowing government to sell health insurance through taxes is tyranny. So, the State capturing a person, confining them, and telling them "on exactly this day and at exactly this time we will kill you" is perfectly fine, but the State saying "we will tax you at progressive rates and use that money to provide health insurance to everyone" is the opening strains of March of the Jackboots, Op 19 No 84.

  • OK, fair enough, Ed, but, see, there's something important you're overlooking, namely:

    How can it be wrong if the Bible says it's OK?

    Hah–didn't think of that, did you? Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to the Townhall message board to complain about how much money we're wasting on lengthy trials and prisoner upkeep.

  • I depart here, but carefully: I think it is possible for a person to do something so barbaric that it precludes their right to live among us. If, for example, the best fun you can think of having with a baby is to fuck it, then I'm afraid I give the State the right to remove you permanently from among us. With my blessing.

    However I caveat that by saying I would not allow the death penalty to be performed based upon circumstantial evidence, or on the evidence of law enforcement, but only on first hand and irrefutable evidence. "Beyond reasonable doubt" does not cut it here.

    As to method, lethal injection is just about the creepiest: it is not one but three injections. The first is a powerful muscle relaxant that ensures, if the next two injections don't work and leave the prisoner in unspeakable agony, that the prisoner will be unable to communicate this.

    The lethal injection method exits because it makes it easy (er) for the executioners. No other reason.

    If the execution method was intended to be of least trauma for the recipient, then the guillotine or bullet to the back of the head would be best.

    But messy, very messy…

  • freeportguy says:

    I've often heard people say "The penalty must fit the crime".
    I then ask myself: "What then makes you better than the people you out to death?"

    No matter how one wants to spin it, the death penalty is nothing more than a replica of the sacrificial lamb to appease public outcry.

    It only serves to make people feel safer, the same way that tv ads in the 50's made people feel "safer" by telling them that ducking under the table when they see "the flash" (atomic bomb exploding) would save them…yeah, right!

    Conservative gun nuts pretend that since gun laws does NOT stop criminals from getting guns and committing crimes, we should pass any anti-gun legislations. Well, then, since the death penalty sure hasn't stopped murders, shouldn't they be for the abolishment of he death penalty? NO, I won't hold my breath or expect them to think rationally…

  • @Delbort: I'm pro universal health care and anti-death-penalty, but I think the typical 'Murrican would justify these two positions by arguing that the death penalty applies to the "guilty" and Obamacare applies to the "innocent." Of course, everyone is "guilty" of being a human being who might get sick and need more care than he/she can pay for out of pocket, but unless our typical 'Murrican is sick at the moment, he/she is probably in denial about that.

  • It's the same half-measures that have always been the hallmark of conservatives. Like the constant calls to get rid of Obamacare, but not the requirement that Emergency Rooms must always accept everyone. Really if you're going to let people die, might as well make htem die on the street outside ERs. I'm sure THAT would go over well.

    Or how about the NRA's stance were they want to have open carry, but not EVERYONE carrying because … that scares normal folks?

  • Well, then, we must seek puffy cloud, rainbow unicorns wearing tutus methods of state-approved murder.

    How about death by drowning in marshmallow creame? Death by blowjob? Death by vacation? Death by donut? Death by butterfly collecting?

  • @Graham The operative words are "among us." When was the last time you heard about someone serving a sentence of life without parole strolling around with the rest of us? Maybe you'd care to check out what being "among us" means inside prison walls? Yes, there are crimes so horrific that the perpetrators should be barred from freedom for the rest of their lives. I'm not sure why more is required, either for the public's protection or for punishment that might possibly impress the criminal with the meaning of his act. For that kind of twisted mind, execution is an easy out.

  • I think there really are people who deserve to die.

    I don't, however, trust the state of ___________ (pick one) to be able to administer that punishment in a fair and error-free manner.

    So while I might support the death penalty in a perfect world, in a perfect world we wouldn't need it anyway.

  • I think I have seen at least one documentary on the death penalty and how it's changed through the years. I seem to recall that the past methods of execution–drawing and quartering, guillotine, firing squad, et al–did not bother the public at all; these were public events where people showed up to see the spectacle, much like people watch free concerts and other public performances and street art today. The movement towards "kinder and gentler" methods of execution was for the sake of the executors, who were getting weirded out by the gruesome nature of what they were doing. Some of the past methods of execution, including the guillotine and the electric chair, were hailed as more humane and more modern with less pain for the condemned.

  • I can see keeping death as a bargaining chip with serial killers. For example Gary "Green River Killer" Ridgway here in Washington; he pleaded guilty to 48 counts of murder to avoid the death penalty. Can you imagine the time and expense a trial on 48 counts of murder would take? Other than a scenario like that I do not believe we need to have executions as part of our criminal justice system. Plus the fact that courts occasionally convict the wrong person.

  • FUN FACT: The USSR outlawed capital punishment in 1947. It was reinstated in 1950 but only for treason, espionage, and "aggravated murder." For those casuals out there, that was during the Stalin era.

  • I'm willing to grant my government a considerable number of powers, but the power to execute me and others is absolutely not one of them. I'd even argue that giving your government the right to kill you is impossible from an inherent human rights perspective as well as from a contract law perspective–it's not something you can give away. It's inalienable. Let alone that killing someone cannot possibly be a reparation for the horrific thing(s) they've done–it's not justice. It rights no wrong. It's punishment and revenge, which (ideally) is the purview of individual people, not the state. For the state to enact a revenge killing undermines all the reasons for there to be a state.

  • @Catana, fair question. What do I mean by "among us?"

    I mean among Humanity, the philosophical Us, the broader Us, those of us for whom barbarity isn't an option or a necessity even in war.

    If the phrase has another meaning in prisons, I am unaware of it.

  • While capital punishment is not practiced in Europe (The Economist said that 2012 was the first year in history when no one was executed there), 95% of Asians live in a capital punishment jurisdiction (per the same article). So we're hardly alone. I'm very anti-capital-punishment, but I do feel that the question of whether capital punishment should be imposed and the question of what methods should be used if it is imposed are separate questions and should be addressed separately. We have humane methods for putting down animals, so it puzzles me why we can't just scale up the dosage and use those.

  • I have never quite understood how it is that people are horrified by capital punishment, but not by imprisonment. Apparently they find it cruel to take someone's life away all at once, but are untroubled so long as it is taken away one day at a time.

    The alternative to capital punishment would be life in prison. If mistakes occur often enough to be a concern, then it is the mistakes that are the problem, not how we deprive the convicted individual of the remainder of his life.

    Our system of "justice" has become a nightmare that would make Kafka blush. Capital punishment is the insignificant tip of a very large and frightening iceberg. Unfortunately, instead of making us aware of the scope of the problem, it distracts us in petty bickering over something that barely matters, while the depth of the underlying dysfunction remains too scary to consider.

    That's a bit like thinking about guns in America by focusing on dramatic mass shootings instead of the mundane, day-to-day violence which claims far more lives.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    You want to stop the Death Penalty?

    Televise the executions on the networks.

    Sure 27% of the Authoritarian followers and leaders will have raging hard-ons – and probably meet at one another's houses to have jircle-cerks – but I think well over 50% of the populations will be disgusted enough to say, "THAT'S IT! NO MORE!!!"

  • Chicagojon says:

    My problem is that I'm mostly opposed to the death penalty, but IMHO 23 hours/day in solitary confinement with 1 hour for handcuffed exercise is barbaric and a fate worse than death. I don't care if it's cruel and unusual punishment, research into psychological effects, or common sense that makes it stop but it needs to stop. It's much more important than if we kill people and how we kill people.

  • @Andrew: Not all "capital punishment jurisdictions" are equal. China executes an estimated 6000 people per year. India, with a similar population to China, has executed 4 in the last 20 years. The USA, with a population about one-third that of India, has executed 1122 in the same period. The USA is far more enthusiastic at putting its own people to death than any other country that might be called a democracy — less so than countries like Iran, China and Saudi Arabia, but that is hardly something to boast about.

    @Chicagojon, Coises: The obvious reply is that if a person in prison is found to be wrongfully convicted, you can release him. He's traumatised and has lost years of his life, but he is alive. This option does not exist for those who have been executed.

  • Historical note: Hanging, as practiced in the UK until its last execution in 1964, is reputed to be a humane method of execution. The condemned person is dropped through a trapdoor, and brought to a very sudden stop by the rope. The trauma to the brain results in instant unconsciosness; death quickly follows as damage to the brain stem stops the heart and lungs.

    This assumes that the executioner has chosen the correct drop for the weight and physical condition of the victim. Too short a drop, and the victim suffers a slow and painful death by strangulation. Too far can result in decapitation. British hangmen took a certain macabre pride in their skill.

    I remember news stories about the death (by natural causes) of the last trained British hangman sometime in the 1990s, a few years before the UK abolished the death penalty in all circumstances in 1998 (previously, it was still on the books for treason and piracy).

  • The Green River Killer used the fact that he had killed many more than the 48 he confessed to to get the death penalty off the table. He said he would, literally, show where the bodies were buried to give peace to the families who had not already found their daughters. For you budding mass murderers out there, make sure you kill a lot so that you can use the ones the authorities don't find to negotiate away the DP on the ones they do. Go Big or Go Home.

  • It goes without saying–at least for any thinking person–that the criminal justice (sic) system is skewed and broken–historically and particularly in these times.

    What arises in my mind is not the question of obvious barbarity, but what kind of person gravitates to the henchman position, and who on the other side of the coin, is drawn to wearing a badge and uniform armed with weapons and authority? Cowards and bullies, is a safe response. . .

    Viewing images of police macing and beating Occupy protesters (for example) reveals pudgy sludge beings in uniforms sadistically abusing/using their positions. Ha! Go eat another burger, go bash another head, take your adrenaline rushed blubber home and try to hump your partner if you have one . . . then, sweet dreams of violence and conquest.

    Protect and serve . . .

    This shit is so insane it defies comment. . . although I guess I just did that.

  • There should be plenty of volunteers to man the firing squads; just recruit the assholes carrying their weapons as they wander around restaurant parking lots and parks proclaiming their god given right to open carry. These are the ones just itching to shoot someone.

  • Coises and Chicago have raised an interesting point.

    The current administration of the criminal "justice" indust… system is really a soft option for the powers that be. It's a no brainier default solution for numerous social ills: employment and opportunity, race, education, mental health, etc. etc., but most importantly people have found a way to make a profit out of it.

    If we stopped and gave the subject any thought we'd realise that our prison population should only be minute fraction of what it is today. It should only have the extremely violent and people who—when given a choice—really do not want to be apart of society. Instead our prisons or packed to capacity, with the only question being asked is: where should we build a new one. Prisons are filled with some poor kid—who's father was also most likely imprisoned for the same offence—for possessing one too many grams of weed while walking while black/brown because that's about the only real "career" choice.

    It would then be far easier to keep prisoners in more humane conditions—the Hilton it wouldn't be. It would also do away with the major need for a prison within a prison ie solitary.

    When I think about criminal "justice" I always try to remind myself of the quote: "In your haste to kill the beast, beware that you do not yourself become the monster." Alas, we do not want real solutions and the only real industry in some areas is the prison industry. So it looks like we have chosen to become monsters.

  • Just pass a law that the executioner will be one of the jurors who brought the guilty verdict — chosen by random from among the jurors. The rest of the jurors must witness the execution. That should put an end to death penalty convictions.

  • Gandalf: Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.

  • Televise executions on the assumption that "well over 50%" of Americans will recoil at their barbarity and put an end to the death penalty? Huh. Well over 50% of Americans have wanted to put an end to lots of things that did not then end, but more pertinently, television is a business, not a public service, and it doesn't serve to make things "real". It makes things "entertainment". The first televised execution will get lots of coverage, some of it breathless and thrilled, some of it breathless and appalled, interviews with the executee's parents, childhood buddies, victim's parents and childhood buddies, lots of pontificating from the usual pontificators. The tenth televised execution will have the networks wondering how to boost ratings – could Oprah narrate the backstory, maybe? How about we put him on an island and then bomb the island? – and by the 20th televised execution it will look like a Japanese game show. Has-been child stars will be invited on to send the condemned through a giant cartoon vegematic and the crowd will love it for a second and then go back to rooting in the bag for the last bit of fried byproduct.

    Asking people to define and then act on their moral values will only illustrate that most of them don't actually have any. They just want to get through the day and watch a little TV. American Idol, American Execution. Whatever.

  • If you think that Americans will be shocked watching executions, go to Youtube and search for footage of the "shock and awe" campaign in Baghdad.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Late response is one of the drawbacks of my summer perch on the left coast. Death penalty is disallowed by all religions, but we have the godly 2nd amendment that makes us particularly apt at killing.

    Our justice system as a whole is inhumane, cruel, vengeful, unjust, racist and brutal. Our use of jailing makes sense only in limited cases. We have more people in jail that most countries population.

  • Captain Blicero says:

    The jurors should have to be the executioners. They all get guns (all but one with blanks, etc), or one straps the dude to the gurney, and so on and so forth. If you believe this person should be put to death, fine. But you have to do it yourself.

  • 'Asking people to define and then act on their moral values will only illustrate that most of them don't actually have any. They just want to get through the day and watch a little TV. American Idol, American Execution. Whatever.'


    The only argument that anyone actually cares about is "How much does it cost?" Executions cost more and so should be outlawed–but the gain in business revenue changes the legislative balance of forces.

  • Actually, I think most white collar crimes deserve the death penalty. It may not bring back the 40% of the world's wealth that disappeared into their pockets in 2008, and it would not deter future white collar crime, but it would sure as hell satisfy my sense of justice.

    Those executive cocksuckers should have an appropriate "fair chance" death, though. For example, being put in a booth with lots of coins and hurricane force winds, being told they keep what they catch, or perhaps a cliff dive into a pool of gold coins, or just pouring molten platinum down their throats…

  • As already suggested, capital punishment should be done by the jury which convicted and it should be mandatorily televised. Just line the jury up, hand them rifles, and start the cameras rolling. If the jury is unwilling to execute the sentence (see what I did there?), the conviction is annulled.

    Voir dire questions to the jury about their belief in the death penalty should be forbidden.

  • Sarah: "Death by drowning in marshmallow créme sounds awesome."

    Not to me; drowning is drowning. On the other hand, death by orgasm sounds like it might be tolerable. As long as it involved as many lovely and attentive partners as possible and took up to thirty years or so to achieve. Maybe some combination would work – hearty meals of bacon and pastries followed by orgiastic revels until the victim passes out. If he wakes up, shower (or bathe) and repeat. Naturally, this would get the looming neo-Puritans up in arms (and in fairness, it might cause a real boom industry in capital crimes), so perhaps it would be best if that form of capital punishment were reserved only for me.

  • Also this: Americans, American politicians, or maybe just modern, well-insulated-from-consequence people in general don't really give a shit about "humane" insofar as that might mean not making your state-sanctioned-murder victim experience undue physical discomfort. Modern, civilized execution methods (which seem to run in parallel with modern, civilized notions of death in general) are all about distance, removal from direct action, and optics. Executions take place in discreet locations, quite private compared to past practices, they are generally not photographed or filmed for public consumption, and the execution method usually entails a neutral gesture – insert a tube, press a button, flip a switch. An announcement of the completed act from a representative of the bureaucracy serves in lieu of public display of the corpse. The internal torment of the victim is irrelevant; s/he is already an object being acted upon by the state. It would not surprise me to discover the guillotine is faster, more foolproof, and less painful than the electric chair (and it's clearly less painful than a botched injection), but it is a violently physical act with disturbingly visible aftereffects.

    This stuff about making executions public and/or personal reminds me of my young socialist youth, from which I dimly remember that "heightening the contradictions" would lead to revolution – I think it was all about regarding mere reformists as the enemy, but I honestly wasn't paying much attention. Then the next 35 years happened, in which contradictions were heightened – by the other side, and gleefully – to truly monstrous proportions, and look at us now. We live in a country littered with dead miners, stand-your-ground murder and sub-livable wages where a public figure of political influence can aver that only property owners should have the vote, and he is not even spit on the very next time he shows himself in the grocery store.

  • @Don, you said:

    "…where a public figure of political influence can aver that only property owners should have the vote.."

    But isn't this already the case? I believe the American Constitution is addressed to "all free men of Capital."

    If you don't have money or property in America the Constitution does not apply to you. Hence the nickels sewn into every hobo's jacket.

    Correct me if I am wrong.

  • Yeah, I argued this same point in comments a while back. As long as we are executing, let's do it up grand. I say bring back drawing and quartering.

    And, as to whether we gratuitously torture people to death, well, there AREthose Gitmo and Bagram detainees who were killed by torture…

  • MAJOR KONG: "I'd say make the state's governor and attorney general perform the execution"

    I can see the campaign ads now. "As Governor I personally pulled the switch on 5 gangbangers, 1 school shooter, and 2 cop killers. Vote for me!"

    And it'd work.

  • Delbort:
    I hold out a flickering hope that one morning we will wake up and realize that no amount of revenge against killers, rapists, and traitors will ever calm our own souls, ever.

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