Friday, August 23, 2013

Why Shoot When You Can Gnaw?

Lethal injection's too good for 'em.  The ones who
burn[] children alive, massacr[] a dozen strangers in a movie theater, or bomb[] the Boston Marathon.
The ones who Robert Blecker (law prof, and author of a forthcoming book which he's shilling through an op-ed at can tell are the worst of the worst - and only them.  Not the others, not the other 98 or 22 or 67 or whatever percent of the people who kill and end up on death row.  It's for the worst of the worst that we need something more (what's the word?) vicious  They're the ones we have to kill and fortunately Blecker's ready to identify them for us, having spent, by his declaration, 
thousands of hours observing daily life inside maximum security prisons and on death rows in several states

But when we know who they are, no lethal injection.
Witnessing an execution in Florida, I shuddered. It felt too much like a hospital or hospice. We almost never look to medicine to tell us whom to execute. Medicine should no more tell us how. How we kill those we rightly detest should in no way resemble how we end the suffering of those we love.
Ah, yes.  Executions look too much like euthanasia, more killing Blecker would seem to favor. Is there anyone he doesn't think should be killed? 

Blecker has a different idea.  He recommends the firing squad - but nobody can have a blank.  We all want the guy dead so we should all kill him.  (He doesn't actually suggest drawing names by lot from the voting rolls - or the law school faculty rosters - but it's hard to see why not.)  The firing squad, see, is quick and painless he says, but it looks cruel.  It provides the appearance of equivalence without the actuality.

But really, if we're about blood atonement, if the idea is to do unto others as they've done to others (the Leaden Rule), that faux equivalence is, well, faux.  Do it right.  Blecker really doesn't have the courage of his convictions.

I've repeatedly suggested that we face up to what we do when we order the death of individuals in our name.  Have them gnawed to death by rats in Yankee Stadium and put it on pay per view, I've written.  Too problematic?  How about the death by a thousand cuts?  The gibbet?  Draw and quarter?  Burn in oil or at the stake?  Stoning?  Throw them off tall buildings?  Evisceration?  The possibilities are almost endless.  Hell, I haven't even mentioned crucifixion.

it's a moral necessity that we do this.  The public demands it.  Just ask that other academic avatar of vengeance, Thane Rosenbaum.

Except, you know, maybe not everyone's so hot to kill.  Maybe not everyone thinks matching evil for evil is a moral command.  Maybe some of us absorbed the lesson that two wrongs don't make a right.  Maybe mercy is a higher value than retribution, more something we should at least aspire to.

And maybe those folks who just don't trust the government to get it right have something there.  

Or maybe we should break out the guillotines.


  1. I'm opposed to the death penalty because the "justice" system results in too many false convictions and I believe intentional killing in other than an immediate self-defense situation or genuine mistake is immoral.

    However, if we would have public hangings (like in the westerns) and public beheadings, maybe most of us would not be so quick to desire to put someone to death. Does anyone agree or disagree?

    1. You're asking what's really an empirical question, but nobody's likely to bring back public executions anytime soon, so it'll really go unanswered.

      My guess, for what it's worth, is that public hangings wouldn't do much except draw a crowd. They used, after all, to do just that as people came from miles around for the show. Parties, celebrations, the 19th century version of tailgating. The pickpockets came, too, and made good money.

      Beheadings? Well, the spurting blood and flying heads would surely attract some and repulse some. There are, by the way, numerous (and some fairly credible) reports that heads chopped off at the guillotine often seemed alive and trying to speak for 10-15 seconds after. That might appall. But the result is more likely to convince the powers that be that executions should be moved back inside the prison walls - and again conducted in clinical rather than spectacular fashion.