The low point of last night’s far-from-edifying Republican debate at the Reagan Library came when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked whether he had any regrets about the 234 people he’s executed so far. When the number was read out, the audience whooped and applauded — Touchdown! We’re Number 1! That there’s a pretty good possibility Perry has killed at least one innocent person didn’t bother the governor or his pep squad; evidently all that matters is affirming that the Lone Star State and the Grand Old Party still know how to kick ass. At a safe distance, of course.
Would these ghouls have had the guts to cheer at a real execution, rather than an MSNBC political farce? Some would, I’m sure. Would they be able to reflect on why executioners* are traditionally depicted with their faces covered? Let’s not ask too much. But the would-be lethal-injector-in-chief and his bloodthirsty admirers might at least read John Rodden’s timely essay on the anniversary of George Orwell’s classic “A Hanging.” Better yet, read “A Hanging” itself.
I’m ambivalent about the death penalty: I don’t see much earthly reason to keep murderers around, assuming their guilt can be discerned beyond minimal doubt. But the rest of the civilized world has gotten along fine without capital punishment, and the Catholic Church clearly considers it far short of “best practices.” Is taking a human life when doing so isn’t strictly necessary licit for mere men like Rick Perry? He blathered on about Texas dishing out “ultimate justice,” but in the Christian tradition — and not just the Christian tradition — the only justice that’s final resides elsewhere.
*Joseph de Maistre makes the most powerful, or at least most poetic, case for the executioner’s role — “He is the terror and the bond of human association. Remove this mysterious agent from the world, and in an instant order yields to chaos: thrones fall, society disappears” — but even Maistre does not pretend this man is to be celebrated: “God receives him in his shrines, and allows him to pray. He is not a criminal. Nevertheless no tongue dares declare that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he is estimable. No moral praise seems appropriate to him, for everyone else is assumed to have relations with human beings: he has none.”