Own the Death Penalty: ‘Humane’ Does Not Mean ‘Inoffensive’

I’d like to make the case for public executions.

Several of my esteemed colleagues — including Eli Lehrer, Andrew C. McCarthy, and Jonah Goldberg — have already weighed in on last night’s botched execution in Oklahoma. It seems to be the rule at this point that you have to disclose your own opinion on capital punishment, so here’s mine: I oppose the death penalty, but not passionately. My opposition is based mainly on the principle that the state should use the minimum amount of violence necessary to promote civil order. My opposition is also not heartfelt: I can appreciate that putting an atrocious criminal to death delivers a sense of public justice served in a way that no other action could. And I’m even open to cost/benefit arguments. If the accounting suggested it would cost substantially less to execute Charles Warner (last night’s second condemned man, whose date with the needle was postponed after the screwup in executing Clayton Lockett) than it would cost to feed, clothe and house him for decades, I don’t see why Sooner State taxpayers should have to pay the larger sum.

That said, I think proponents of the death penalty should more fully embrace the central fact of capital punishment: Killing a person is a horrific and barbarous act. That does not change depending on whether the killing is justified. The more you try to make execution seem civilized and bloodless, the more you try to drain it of rage and terror, the more barbaric it becomes.

In fact, you could make a pretty strong case that horrors like last night’s are the result of society’s pretending there is a nice way to kill people. There have been botched executions for as long as there have been executions. But you can fix the problem quickly, and without unnecessary suffering, if somebody in the firing squad misses or there’s a problem with the guillotine (which was itself initially viewed as a more humane means of execution — it was even named for a physician who considered it an improvement on the axe). Supposedly merciful refinements like lethal injection don’t ease the suffering of the condemned nearly so much as they allow the government to kid itself about the awful responsibility it’s taking on.

Closeted execution also allows the government to skate on the question of the symbolic aspects of killing a prisoner. The drama of execution for most of us is probably bound up in the idea of town-square executions in which the condemned horse thief faces a jeering crowd and has the option of going out with dignity, defiance, self-pity, or some other response. I do not see how it makes us more sophisticated than our frontier forebears that the same act is now conducted in shameful secrecy, with audiences so strictly limited that rubberneckers sometimes compete in a ghastly competition for available seats, by authorities whose actions signal that they themselves feel they’re doing something low and dishonest. (Reportedly Oklahoma officials bought some of the chemicals for last night’s event in cash, so there would be no transaction record.)

One of the more famous executions in U.S. history was the hanging of Major John André, the British officer who facilitated Benedict Arnold’s defection during the Revolutionary War. André was highly regarded by both sides, and his pre-death conduct, which included writing a religious poem and drawing a self-portrait, was honorable enough to lead Alexander Hamilton to say, “Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less.” While the fitness of André’s punishment is not in much doubt (he was caught out of uniform and convicted of espionage in a seemingly fair trial), he had one strong objection: He wanted to be shot like a soldier rather than hung like a spy, leading to the famous last words, “I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode.” That objection didn’t come from any belief that being shot is nicer or less painful than being hanged. (It’s certainly bloodier.)

I’m not comparing André to a monster like Charles Warner. (Follow the link to Jonah Goldberg’s post for some details about his crime.) But if a word like mercy has any place in a discussion of execution, it should be in the idea that mercy stems from recognizing the essential dignity of a human life — even a life you’re about to end. You put a sick animal to sleep because an animal has no powers of reason, so minimizing its pain is the only thing you need to worry about. The dignity of human beings is a more complex matter, and it involves more than reducing mess or public embarrassment. If we need to kill people in almost total darkness, maybe it’s something we shouldn’t be doing at all.

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