The bizarro world of State-sponsored executions

Ronnie Lee Gardner is scheduled to be executed in a little less than an hour from the time at which I’m writing this.

These stories are always difficult for me to read, but for once I made it through to the end of one, and I’m struck by a number of things.  First of all, this is all very bizarre.  A spokesman for the State of Utah informs the media that the time of the execution has been settled, that the inmate has been moved to his observation cell, and that he’s been occupying his time with sleep, eating, watching a movie, reading a book, etc.  It’s all a little too reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  One might even expect to hear Mr. Bureaucrat wish us a happy visit to the zoo at the conclusion of his remarks.  Are events like this, rather than the Super Bowl, the modern American version of the Roman Coliseum?  The controversial act of a State execution plays into both our curiosity and our barbaric need for occasional gore in life.

One can hardly miss the fact, too, that one of the five marksmen charged with this grim task will be given blanks, so that none of them really knows who fired the fatal shot.  Question:  If this is really a just act, why is this necessary?  Say what you want about Medieval executions, but at least those executioners had the cojones to do what they did with awareness.  Whatever the justice or injustice of their act, they had to live with their consciences.  Heaven forfend that modern State functionaries should have to do the same thing.  It brings a whole new meaning to the saying that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

The death penalty is a touchy subject, and yet it shares some essential things with all kinds of conversations these days:  When it comes up, people have a tendency to discuss the irrelevant and the unimportant rather than the crucial things which are really at stake.  Deterrence and revenge are high on the list of fables that only serve to make the world a perpetually fallen place.  State-sponsored execution was reinstated decades ago, and yet many of us live in cities which have not seen falling murder rates but rather quite the opposite. Ronald Reagan’s sacred myths about the death penalty win elections but they don’t save the souls of our cities.

Much as the deterrence mentality is mistaken, it is at least presumably offered up by those who mean well.  The same cannot be said for people who simply want revenge.  The punishment should fit the crime, etc.  This, too, misses the point and is a maniacal application of the principle of proportionality.  If this kind of logic were to be used, then one could argue that those accused of involuntary manslaughter should be eligible for an ignominious descent into That Good Night, courtesy of the local governor.  In any case, revenge makes barbarians of us all; indeed, it makes apparatus of the State worse than the criminals, since executions are always well-planned.  At least some murderers were acting in the heat of the moment.  That means that they are quite possibly more gentle people than former Texas Governor George W. Bush.

The Catholic Church has done an admirable job of late of standing up against the death penalty.  She has brought good arguments to the discussion which do approach the essence of the matter—issues such as human dignity and the sacredness of every life.  This is all to the good.  What most people don’t realize, however, is that the Church still teaches that the State has the right to execute certain criminals who pose a particular threat to society.  The late Dr. Wojtyla argued that this almost never happens anymore, given the high security of modern prisons.  Ok.  This is better, and largely a welcome outlook on all of this, as far as I’m concerned, but even with all the talk about the sacredness of life—surely an important matter—a crucial element is left undiscussed.

What few people seem to get, what even the commendable Catholic position has not approached, is the insidious implication in State-sponsored execution:  If the State can execute you, then the State owns you.  You do not belong to yourself.  You do not have any self-determination.  Your very life is in the hands of the State.  Criminals may surrender certain rights by virtue of their misdeeds, but I do seem to recall that certain rights are inalienable.  But the idea of inalienable rights is an achievement of the philosophers, and Americans don’t know much about philosophy.  “Ahhhh, what sort of thing is that?” asked the American tourists in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.  Consequently, no one seems to ask the question after an execution:  If the State can do this, what else can it do?  I am personally frightened by that thought.

You may think I’m paranoid, and ten or twenty years ago that might have been a plausible reaction to my position.  But now the U.S. government has given itself the authority to assassinate U.S. citizens which it considers to be threats.  How could such a premise stand if we did not surrender, at least in principle, our very beings to the State?

“Oh, philosophy.  That’s the meaning of life— you know, why are you here?”

“Well we were in California last year and Miami the year before that….”

Ignorance is the bedrock on which tyranny is built.


5 Responses

  1. “Ignorance is the bedrock on which tyranny is built.”

    Nowadays that bedrock goes very deep indeed.

  2. Criminals may surrender certain rights by virtue of their misdeeds, but I do seem to recall that certain rights are inalienable.

    But not the right to life. If an intruder is in my bedroom then he has forfeited this right as far as I am concerned. The application of this principle at the societal level implies the acknowledgement of the rights and privileges of the state, which I realize that you do not. However, for those of us who do it is a logical extension, at least in theory, even if it is applied in a manifestly unjust way.

    • Paul,

      Hmmm. Well, in the case you describe, what you are doing is asserting your right to life, since it is in imminent danger, and I agree with this. In what way, however, is society in imminent danger from someone who’s safely locked behind bars? Sure, he could escape, but this is far less likely these days. Mistakes can also happen on the other side: the State can execute the wrong dude. Indeed, this has happened. Leaving aside my anarchist beliefs and just going with a kind of “Pascal’s political wager,” I’d rather err on the side of a liberal, more free approach. It’s a quality of life issue to me. Maybe someday I’ll be squelched by some escaped convicted murderer, but at least I won’t at the same time be in danger of receiving the death penalty should, God forbid, I end up being the victim of a case of mistaken identity or some such thing.

      • It’s a quality of life issue to me. Maybe someday I’ll be squelched by some escaped convicted murderer, but at least I won’t at the same time be in danger of receiving the death penalty should, God forbid, I end up being the victim of a case of mistaken identity or some such thing.

        This is a reasonable approach, in my opinion. We all have to live with the fact that virtually all of our choices about how we wish to organize the world around us will have positive and negative aspects, and we try to choose the options that will, in our judgment, provide the best outcome for us, or for society in some sense. I happen to disagree in this particular instance, but the reasoning you give is sound.

        However, your original argument was framed in terms of rights, and I think that your assertion that certain rights are absolutely inalienable is incorrect, or, at least I am not willing to recognize the right to life as one of these.

  3. Oy. Obviously anarcho-capitalists oppose “state-sponsored anything.” The real question is whether execution would be a legitimate punishment for certain acts in a free-society, and I think it would be.

    If you don’t think the death penalty is a deterrent, then you don’t believe humans respond to incentives, a bedrock principle of human action. It’s going to be hard to empirically show how specific punishments have served as deterrents relative to the untestable alternative, but logically the punishment of the death penalty stops some murder. The alternative logic is that no punishment stops any crime.

    In terms of rights, an agressor cedes certain rights by violating the rights of others. That can hardly be a controversial claim. In situations where an agressor kills someone or multiple people, his “life, liberty, and property” may be taken away, as long as the victims wish to pursue remittance or execution.

    I think you are confounding appropriate non-agressive acts with appropriate punishment. There is a whole branch of punishment theory that is independent of the state’s existence which I recommend checking out.

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