Shutting Down the Death Machine
Albert Camus’s 1957 essay Reflections on the Guillotine, which along with The Rebel received special notice from the Nobel committee that awarded him that year’s literature prize, opens with an account of his father’s reaction to witnessing an execution for the first time. Despite having previously lamented the mildness of decapitation for a mass-murderer, his father returned white and trembling, and vomited repeatedly. He made no further statement on the practice. This, Camus argued, proves that shock at the barbarity of capital punishment trumps the initial thirst for revenge. Those of us who campaign for the international abolition of what Camus aptly termed “administrative murder”, should be encouraged by recent events.
The first was the result of the Polish election, which saw voters remove the chauvinistic Law and Justice party from office. It was the Polish government that alone blocked plans by EU member states to inaugurate a continent-wide day of protest against capital punishment. The second was the emergence that there may be no more executions in the US until the middle of next year. What began as a Supreme Court review of the legality of lethal injection has now evolved into a de facto moratorium. Since the successful challenge brought by two men on death row in Kentucky, the court has intervened in Texas, Virginia and Mississippi to block executions. State prosecutors have picked up on this pattern, causing the execution rate to fall to 42 this year, the lowest level for a decade. Significantly, of the 37 capital-punishment states, only Nebraska uses the alternative of the electric chair.
For now, the question of the practice of the death penalty is taking precedent over that of principle. Public backing for its use remains robust. The most recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum put support for the death penalty for murder at 64 per cent, a figure that has not dipped below 50 per cent since 1966.
The case against the death penalty is complete on principle; murder does not become legitimate in the shadow of prior murder. The circles of pain and hatred are only widened as the loss to the victim’s family is followed by that to the defendant’s. George Bernard Shaw expressed this point best when he argued, “It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.” In a court review extremely unlikely to end the death penalty itself, we can at best hope that renewed accounts of its sordid operation will lead more to abandon the delusion that the death penalty can in any sense be ‘humanised’.
The lethal injection is the latest in a long line of methods originally conceived as benign alternatives to their brutal predecessors, but which swiftly pass into horrors of their own kind. The drugs of the injection, often resulting in prolonged and sometimes horrific pain, are now not even used on animals. Nor does the involvement of humans ameliorate the hit of the chemicals. To the contrary, since many professional doctors refuse to be involved, the deed is often contracted out to inexperienced correctional officers-with decidedly shaky hands. Yet these final acts by the gurney are not the beginning of a rotten process but rather the culmination.
The rhetoric may be of ‘zero tolerance’ but the reality is profoundly arbitrary. A mere 2 per cent of murders are punished by the death penalty. The chosen few are more often distinguished by their race or class than by the relative severity of their crimes. A defendant who kills a white person is four and a half times more likely to receive the punishment than one who kills a black person. Those too poor to afford adequate legal representation are often decisively disadvantaged. To argue that criminals shouldn’t land themselves in this distorted system in the first place, would be to forget the hundreds who spent decads on death-row before their innocence was found. That the practice mirrors the wider inequalities of society should not come as a surprise. But I still meet conservatives who daily scorn the apparent inefficiencies and abuses of state-run schools and hospitals, and yet also maintain that this same blundering state should hold the power of life and death over its citizens.
We are sure to hear much elevated talk of compromise and reform at the Supreme Court, once again a collision with the resounding point that human dignity demands abolition will be delayed, but it should not be denied.
Published in the Warwick Boar, 22/11/07