Monday, 14 January 2008

Barbara Kay on capital punishment: Death by firing squad is the way to go

Barbara Kay on capital punishment: Death by firing squad is the way to go

Posted: January 13, 2008, 4:21 PM by Yoni Goldstein

As one of the lonely few in Canada - in the whole Western world nowadays outside of the U.S. - who never stopped believing in the justice of the death penalty, I have often pondered the methods of execution I could feel morally comfortable with. So I was very interested to read Colby Cosh’s defence of the guillotine in Friday's Post.

I agree with Colby that death by lethal injection, so humane and painless in theory, is for many practical reasons a less than optimum way to go. As he points out, doctors and nurses are ethically constrained from administering the toxins, and the lay people who carry out these executions have made gruesome mistakes, causing pain to the executionee and guilty disgust in the witnesses.

Electrocution is hideous both when it succeeds and particularly so when the facilitators fumble (who can ever forget the “dry” electrocution in Stephen King’s The Green Mile?). But electrocution is also terrible because of the torturous anticipatory effects on the one who must endure it. Indeed, simply watching such a grotesque spectacle - all executions must be witnessed, and rightly so - has no doubt turned many a believer into a death penalty opponent, as well it might.

True believers in the death penalty are committed to justice and think “mercy” as a default contradicts the real meaning of mercy as an exception, not the rule. But we also abhor needless cruelty. We consider the possibility, however faint, that we ourselves or someone we love might one day commit a crime that calls for the ultimate punishment (in which case we would never be so hypocritical as to ask for “mercy”), and we wish for all executionees what we would wish for ourselves.

I have thought long and hard over all the various methods, but unlike Colby, my considerations go beyond the question of painlessness and instantaneity for the executionee. The death penalty can only be effective if the society in which it occurs - that is, a democratic society - assents as a whole to the procedure without guilt or moral discomfort.

Therefore I can’t consider an execution method valid, unless the death leaves the executioner and the witnesses feeling the subject has been closed in a way that allows them to walk away from the deed without guilt. If the witnesses are horrified at the sight of the death, that is if the executionee’s torment is palpable, and/or they feel what they have seen is barbaric, the reaction of the witnesses seeps into the population at large, and each successive execution sends out ripples of cultural unease. Eventually the cost to the national psyche will override the justice of the policy.That is effectively what happened in Canada and other Western countries as a prelude to the repeal of the capital punishment.

Thus the guillotine, for all its effectiveness in ending a life instantly, poses unsettling psychological difficulties. For one thing it is in the West associated with France’s post-Revolution reign of terror, in which thousands of innocent lives were snuffed out by it. But the truly awful part was that they were snuffed out as a strategy for whipping up public bloodthirstiness. The grim history of the guillotine recalls its haunting images of the tumbrils rolling through the jeering crowds with the victims witnessing all the crowd’s savage glee, and knowing their death was to be an entertainment for the rabble. No, the guillotine has a morally corrupted past it cannot live down.

Even if its past were blameless, its present, in the form of beheadings by sword, are now associated with the vilest inhumanity by terrorists and the people who loathe the West the most. These people specialize in the degradation of the human body. Removing the head from the body is symbolically literally to depersonalize the one killed. It is tribalist, triumphalist and designed to provoke terror in others rather than for moral retribution.

Both in the past and the present, then, beheadings are associated not with the dispassion that should accompany the event, but with the most feverish, vengeful and barbaric instincts known to man. No, the guillotine will not do. Likewise for gas, which is not instant in any case, and can be excruciatingly painful. But even if it were instantaneous, its association with the Holocaust renders it as well unthinkable.

Hanging is to my mind far too susceptible to error, and, again, not always instant. More important, it is disgusting to watch. I am sure we all remember Saddam Hussein’s death. Nobody deserved capital punishment more, but no true believer in the death penalty could possibly have rejoiced at the sight of that botched and humiliating final scene.

Moreover, all the methods mentioned so far require a professional executioner. This is disturbing in a number of ways. An executioner must be paid by the government from our taxes. People who are against the death penalty should not be forced to participate in it themselves (and one could make the same case for abortion, but that’s a subject for another day). And what kind of a person actually wants to take up such a career? I fear that such a job, which would have to be quite well paid, might appeal to some very unsavoury individuals in the population.

In the end I keep coming back to the firing squad. It is by far my own preferred way of execution, should the occasion arise. First of all, it involves no loss of body parts, which is important in terms of human dignity. The families of the executed should have a whole body to bury. The face remains unblemished, again important for the family. The executed faces his executioners and stands upright. That is good. Lying on a gurney or strapped into a chair, the person’s helplessness and humiliation are exaggerated. A man - it is usually a man - wants to die like a man. Standing up at the same level as those who will kill him.

Secondly it is instantaneous. It is impossible for, say, a team of 12 (I like 12, it is like a bookend to the condemning jury) skilled sharpshooters - volunteers all, mind you - all firing at once, not to hit a vital organ. (If I were a sharpshooter,I would gladly have joined a firing squad to execute Paul Bernardo. I mean that.)

Viewing a firing squad execution is the least damaging to the psyche for those who wish to be, or must be, present. After all, we have all “witnessed” such executions in countless films without disgust, even though none of us can bear to watch a realistically “aestheticized” beheading, a hanging or a gassing, not to mention a botched electrocution or injection.

I really think we have banished the death penalty for the wrong reason: because we don’t like the methods used. That is, we all think certain unregenerately evil people deserve the death penalty, but we are too squeamish about the actual process to square the decree with our guilt at causing torture. If we could view the actual process dispassionately, I think we would be a lot more objective about the arguments for capital punishment. But objective justice and sentimentality are now too inextricably tangled together for rational review of the policy.

That’s too bad, because according to the latest research, the death penalty actually is a deterrent, each execution preventing anywhere from three to 18 murders, depending on which study you trust. And if the death penalty is proven to be a deterrent, then the people bearing the heaviest moral burden on this issue are not those of us who believe in capital punishment, but the "compassionate" abolitionists who, in order to save evildoers from pain, are willing to sacrifice the lives of innocents.

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