Since Jimmy Carter reinstated Georgia’s death penalty to Supreme Court satisfaction in 1976, capital punishment has been the subject of constant public debate, pitching tough-on-crime conservatives against bleeding-heart liberals against Catholics advancing a seamless pro-life garment. According to the 2013 year end report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), though, death by execution has undergone a decade-long decline. Executions peaked at 98 in 1999, and death sentences peaked slightly earlier from 1994-1996.
This in part reflects a decrease in violent crime from the dark days of the early 1990s, as the homicide rate has also dropped over the same period. DPIC points, however, that there is a technical reason at least for the decline in actual executions: states can’t get the goods. Because many of the cocktails used in lethal injection are manufactured in Europe, where the death penalty enjoys substantially less favor than here in the United States, Europeans have instituted export bans on drugs for executions. The American Medical Association has also long ruled that “A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.”
With fewer avenues to access the drugs that provide the latest attempt at “humane” state killing, and no access to the otherwise most capable technicians for administering those drugs, the very act of executing a prisoner convicted of a capital crime is almost hopelessly complicated. One wonders, however, if the perpetual pursuit of a more perfect lethal cocktail, a more humane fashion of killing, is ultimately in conflict with the nature of capital punishment itself. As we have moved from hangings and firing squads to the electric chair to lethal injection, we see the attempt to use technology to intercede between us and the death act, to rationalize it, to sterilize it. It bears remembering that the guillotine was conceived as an enlightened method of execution more fitting for the Age of Reason.
Death’s horror cannot be rationalized, however, as it points to our finitude, and signals the limits of what our reason can reach. By wrapping it in ever more institutions and legalisms, the liberal project tries to do more than prevent “cruel and unusual punishment.” It seeks to conquer our darkest discomforts with bureaucratic procedure, anonymous responsibility, and sterilizing technology.
The well-known scripture, John 8:7 calls for he who is without sin to cast the first stone. Attention is usually concentrated on the first half, the impossible condition and qualification, but there may be some wisdom to be gleaned from the latter, the call to action. The Nazarene preacher demanded that one who should take up the action of execution should weigh the momentousness and savagery of the act and be willing to expose himself to the accompanying burdens.
Insofar as American states continue to maintain and enforce capital punishment, perhaps we too should be willing to face the nature of state-sanctioned killing, rather than first administering muscle-paralyzing drugs that shield us from the sight of any discomfort that death may bring.