If My Thought-Dreams Could Be Seen

Discussing the guillotine lays bare some  uncomfortable truths about the death penalty.

Unlike most countries in the world, the United States sees capital punishment as a legitimate political choice.  32 of our 50 states have legalized the death penalty for some crimes, though some of those states seldom enforce it.

The death penalty has a long and troubling history in America. It has been with us since our founding, which is among the strongest arguments for its constitutionality.  However, squaring the practice with our founders’ intentions doesn’t resolve the fundamental question: is this an acceptable practice today?  There has also been a tremendous racial bias in its application, and black murderers are far more likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts, even today.

I submit that the methods of carrying out the death penalty betray a real problem in public perception of capital punishment: we are accepting of state-sanctioned murder, as long as we are not required to face the reality of the sentence we are imposing on the condemned.  Our death penalty practices are more about protecting the sensitivities of the observers and the public, and less about effectuating the sentence in the most humane ways possible.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus on the three most common methods of execution: lethal injection, electrocution, and asphyxiation (gas chamber).

Lethal injection is by far the most prevalent means of capital punishment in the United States.  It is also the most sterile to the observers.  In their view, the prisoner is simply put to sleep, like a terminally-ill pet.  Of course, the real function of the first drugs in the “cocktail” is to paralyze the muscles, so that even if the condemned is in excruciating pain when their heart is chemically stopped, they cannot physically express it.

This form of punishment has made headlines recently for all the wrong reasons.  Other countries condemn the United States for what they term barbarism, and many have forbidden the sale of necessary chemicals to the United States for use in executions. The result has been new cocktails, some of which have been catastrophic failures, with inmates waking up and screaming during what was supposed to be a nice, quiet execution.

Electrocution, likewise, is designed to be sterile for the observer.  The prisoner has a hood placed over their head so that their agonized expression as they are exposed to lethal currents is hidden from the audience.  This form of punishment also focuses on stopping the heart, which anyone who has had a heart attack will tell you is an excruciatingly painful experience.  We hide the faces so that we don’t need to face the consequences of our political choices.

The gas chamber is similar in that it is not quick, it is not painless, but it is relatively mild from the perspective of the observer.  While this method has fallen into relative disuse, it is still the third most common form of execution in America, and once again, the black hood is employed to lessen the impact on the fragile viewing audience, who sees a hooded figure thrash a bit, and then slump forward.

Of course, one need not look far for a form of execution that is instant, painless, and effective.  The guillotine, infamous for its use during the reign of terror in France, operates by means of a large blade, and gravity.  The condemned has their head separated from their body in a fraction of a second, which causes instant death, some urban legends to the contrary notwithstanding.

There is absolutely no question this would be a more effective and less painful means of execution, a more humane way to perform the inherently inhumane act of murder.  So why is it completely ignored in America?

The answer lies in our real motivation for choosing methods of execution.  The goal is not to be humane, it is to be considerate of the public, and the observers.  True, the guillotine would be less ghastly than our currently-used methods of killing prisoners, but it would also be bloody, and graphic.  It would undeniably show that these are not people drifting gently off to sleep, they are being killed, by the state, on purpose.

For this reason, it will never be utilized.  There is zero chance that politicians would sign off on bringing back the guillotine for executions.  This fact should cause us to take a step back and consider, are we really behind this practice?  If we choose to countenance a death penalty, can we face the consequences of our actions?

Published in: on November 4, 2014 at 3:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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