Austin Sarat: The assembly-line style of executions fits the coarsening of public life
Plan will strain state's capacity to carry out the death penalty in an error-free manner
Editor’s Note: Austin Sarat is associate dean of the faculty at Amherst College, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College and author of “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty”. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Arkansas has announced that it will put 8 men to death over a ten-day period in April.
If it carries out its plans, the state will execute these men at a rate unheard of since the United States resumed the death penalty in 1977.
The closest recent parallel occurred two decades ago in the heyday of the death penalty in Texas, when that state twice put eight inmates to death in the space of a month – but those executions were not carried out in such a compressed number of days.
The assembly-line style of execution is unseemly and fits with the coarsening of public life that has unfortunately become an all-too-familiar feature of American politics. It will strain the state’s capacity to impose the death penalty in an error-free fashion and impose even more of a psychological and moral burden on those who carry out the sentence than would ordinarily be the case. It also raises serious questions about the lengths to which Americans will go to keep the death penalty system running.
Such questions resonate with concerns raised, fifty years ago, by the French philosopher Albert Camus. In his view, execution was “murder” – a form of senseless killing that demeaned those who imposed it as well as those to whom it was applied.
It’s striking to note another parallel: that Camus wrote at a time of a looming crisis for his country’s preferred method of execution, the guillotine, a crisis not unlike the current crisis surrounding our own preferred method – lethal injection. He wanted to shake his readers out of their complacency about what the French government was doing and help them see that its death penalty system threatened France’s claim to being a “civilized” nation.
The equation of the death penalty and murder is not just the rhetorical gesture of foreign critics like Camus. It has long been a staple of American death-penalty abolitionists who call it legalized murder and say that our methods of execution are torture.
Capital punishment’s defenders, on the other hand, insist that it is nothing like murder. The former, they say, is justifiable and the latter is not. Unlike those who murder, we go to great lengths to avoid punishing those who do not deserve to be punished.
Moreover, supporters highlight America’s efforts to find, and use, methods of execution that minimize the suffering of those we put to death. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, writing before lethal injection’s recent problems, reflected on the heinous crimes perpetrated by those we execute. “How enviable,” he said, “a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that.”
States with the death penalty also generally allow condemned prisoners to choose their last meal and say some last words. These gestures extend a level of dignity and compassion to the condemned that they did not show their victims. As the historian Daniel LaChance puts it, “These last meals – and last words – show the state is democratic and respects individuality even as it’s holding people accountable. As horrible as the deed they’ve been convicted of [is], the person still has some kind of dignity that we’re acknowledging.”
Such respect for individuality and dignity would be jeopardized, however, if Arkansas goes through with its plan because the reasons for that state’s rush to execute have little to do with those concerns or with justice. They are instead another indication of problems arising from America’s dependence on lethal injection. Those problems have led some states to halt executions altogether and others to resurrect older, previously discredited methods of execution.
Arkansas has chosen a different path. Its plan to execute as many as possible as soon as possible arises from worries that when the state’s current supply of Midazolam, one of three drugs the state uses in its lethal-injection procedure, passes its useable date in April, the state will no longer be able to replenish it. Without Midazolam, Arkansas would have no way to carry out executions. State officials are simply rushing to execute while they still can.
This rush to execute blurs distinctions between the death penalty and murder and places us in the company of nations and groups less invested than we are in honoring the individuality and dignity of the condemned.
Recently, for example, in a single day Jordan put to death 15 people, 10 whom had been convicted of terrorism and five who had committed other crimes, including rape.
A few weeks ago, Kuwait hanged seven people all on the same day.
In January of last year, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people who had each been convicted of terrorism. Forty-three of them were beheaded and four were put to death by firing squad.
And then, of course, there is the fact that wholesale execution is regularly practiced by terrorist organizations like ISIS.
The dilemma facing Arkansas and its plan highlights questions that Americans who support capital punishment must now face.
Given the vexing problems that plague the death penalty system, is it so important to carry out executions that we should do so even if it does to damage to our commitment to treating those who commit horrible crimes with dignity? Is it so important that we should adopt practices that resemble or mimic those of countries or groups whose values we frequently criticize just to keep the machinery of death in motion?
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As noted in the Gospel of Matthew, as well as by the playwright George Bernard Shaw and former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, how a society punishes reveals its true character.
All Americans should worry about what Arkansas’ rush to execute says about its character – and ours.