Friday, January 7, 2011

Suspension of Judgment

Yes, my first post has come months after the blog has started, and given the lateness of the hour, it will be a short one. To those seeking a reason why, I direct you to Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, Q. 35, and the following sentence from an essay in Albert Camus's Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: "It is better for the intellectual not to talk all the time."

The essay in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death that follows the one I just quoted is a remarkable piece entitled "Reflections on the Guillotine." Written in 1957, when the guillotine was still used in France, it is the most lucid critique of the death penalty that I have yet found, and I am in agreement with almost all of the entire essay. There is one page, though, in which I differ from Camus. He writes, "Today when such vile death is administered on the sly, what is the meaning of this torture?...The science that serves to kill so many could at least serve to kill decently. An anesthetic that would allow the condemned man to slip from sleep to death (which would be left within his reach for at least a day so that he could use it freely and would be administered to him in another form if he were unwilling or weak of will) would assure his elimination, if you insist, but would put a little decency into what is at present but a sordid and obscene exhibition." I am not sure what Camus would have thought of lethal injection as it is currently practiced (Camus died in 1960; lethal injection was first used in the U.S. in 1982), but it seems as though he was anticipating it here.

This appears to be a reasonable proposition, that a man sentenced to death should be allowed to die calmly and painlessly, like Socrates. Camus is absolutely right that the death should be painless; prolonging the moment of death in pain would be unnecessarily cruel. Whether it should be calm is another question.

There are many reasons offered for supporting the death penalty; common ones include it acts as a deterrent, it prevents the criminal from repeating his crime and better ensures public safety, it has Biblical precedents, and it satisfies a sense of justice and outrage at an atrocious crime. Camus directly or indirectly addresses all of these. Deterrent? Capital punishment is not guaranteed to put the fear of God into potential murderers; this assertion is not borne out by statistics. Biblical precedent? As in most discussions involving Sacred Scripture, you can pick texts to support what you please; the Bible is often inventively and creatively fudged around. Sequestering criminals from society? This is a stronger reason than the previous ones. In fact, it may be the most valid reason of them all; yet it still will not do. A maximum security prison will remove the criminal from society almost as thoroughly as death. And then there's the satisfaction of justice...

To begin, that depends on what sort of justice we have in mind. To put a man to death for murder presupposes a standard of exact retributive justice: a life for a life. As Camus points out, however, this is also the language of retaliation and revenge. In this case, it is the language of bloodlust. A man is condemned to death because others want to see him die. This, I think, is the reason capital punishment persists. Statistics, the Bible, and poor facilities are not reasons strong enough. If we are going to support capital punishment honestly, we fall back on a reason which we would prefer not to articulate. We would not like to think that bloodlust enters into judicial pronouncements, yet there is an element of it present.

If we are going to be honest in our pronouncements, let us also be honest in our methods of bearing them out. If the public wants bloodlust, let us give it to them, as it is what they want. This is not done. Lethal injection, as it is currently practiced, takes place behind closed doors with relatively few witnesses present. It is quiet, orderly, and sanitized. By this process, execution is made to look comparatively pleasant--if one gets a chance to look at it. But if the public wants satisfaction for an atrocity, let it have a corresponding, reciprocal atrocity for all to see. This was done in the past with nooses, guillotines, and firing squads.

Let us see the moment of execution, but let's also be humane. I stand by the former point: the moment of death should be instantaneous and leave no room for extended suffering. This was one reason for switching to lethal injection, but the other three methods mentioned above work just as well. The guillotine was designed to be a more humane method of execution, so that the dying man would feel little more than "a slight sensation of coldness on his neck." The firing squad brings death even faster. Lastly, if done properly, hanging breaks the neck instantly. Lethal injection has not been shown to be less painful than any of these, save perhaps the guillotine. It may look less painful; for some, that is enough.

Of course, there will always be botched executions regardless of the method. But if it does not decrease the pain, there is no reason to use a "sanitized" method of execution instead of one more grotesque. All lethal injection does for us as a public is make us feel better about putting criminals to death. It is secret and orderly, so we do not have to see it or think about it too hard, and we can have our sense of vengeance gratified at the same time. All the benefits of vengeance without the scruples of conscience or the burden of responsibility. If we are to face the problem of the death penalty squarely, we cannot have this situation persist. As I see it, there are two options. The first and best is to abolish capital punishment altogether. But if we must have it, let's not kid ourselves about what we're doing; rather, let's erect a gallows and return to public hanging.

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