Friday, June 18, 2010

Not the Method but the Intent

Detail from Manet's painting "The Execution of Maximilian"

Sometime this summer we will be visiting Utah. Now, this destination has not really been on our list of places to see, but we have a friend who had a time share available and with the offer of free lodging, we thought—why not?

Who knew that our summer visit would be accompanied by a headline out of Utah that is playing around the world: Firing Squad Executes U.S. Killer.
It is a most peculiar thing to me that the bulk of the outrage about this event falls on the MEANS of accomplishing execution, not the fact that we still not only allow but actively practice the death penalty. That puts us in the company of countries with whom we generally do not closely associate.

Of the countries that carried out capital punishment in 2010 are—Bangladesh, China, Taiwan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Palestinian authority, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, and the United States. Great company, eh?

Capital punishment has been outright banned in 16 countries in Africa, in Asia 14 countries, in Europe every country except Belarus, in North and Central America most of the countries including Canada and Mexico, in Oceania every country except Nauru, Niue, Papau New Guinea, and Tonga, and finally in South America every country. Some company that we are in!

So back to my main issue: does it really matter that a man condemned to death elects to die by firing squad? No doubt, that method of dying is by far the most humane—swift, sure, without the agonizing moments of whatever suffering.

Perhaps you have gleaned the fact that I am totally opposed to the death penalty as a punishment for any crime, no matter how heinous. Of course I am troubled by some of the awful crimes that one human being can commit against another human being. But, the administration of the death penalty does not right the wrong that has been done. And for murder by the state to be carried out, in all our names, borders on the barbaric for me. How does it teach society that killing is wrong?

A while back, I
wrote about a man who was my husband’s and my friend. He had been Attorney General of Pennsylvania, and when he died, the New York Times’ obituary of him noted the singular act for which he had achieved national fame: he ordered the dismantling of the electric chair in Pennsylvania. Our friend Fred told me how he became galvanized into giving that order. He had visited the state correctional facility in Pennsylvania where the electric chair was housed. When he walked into that chamber of death a shiver of repulsion went through him, and he had the sudden sense that murder was being committed in that room in his name.

Fred’s opposition to the death penalty remained firm and was only increased when he read a book called Star Wormwood. Published in 1959 this true story by Curtis Bok recounts the horrific tale of a starving man named Roger Haike. It was during the Depression, and almost by accident he killed and then consumed some of the flesh of a young woman. He was tried, convicted and sentenced the death. When the death penalty was carried out, by electrocution, it takes a fearfully long time for the young man to die.

In a review of the book are these words: “Capital punishment was abolished by judicial decree in the early 1970's only to be resurrected by Congress a few years later. It still shakes its hoary, anachronistic head in the United States, the last western democracy to retain it.”

Its hoary, anachronistic head indeed. It makes no difference what the method is. It is the intent of capital punishment that I find offensive and wrong.


Donna Henderson said...

I hope you have time while in Utah to visit the southern part of the state. That's where you will find acres and acres of incredibly beautiful & colorful rock formations. You can go to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, or just drive around because they're everywhere in that area. If you hit it at sunrise or sunset, you will go crazy taking photos. Make sure your camera battery is charged. Not enough time? Maybe just a fly-over, then. That way you could see the north rim of the Grand Canyon, too. There's your traveling in the West tip for the day. You're welcome.

Anvilcloud said...

Just saw that in the paper this morning. Cuppa relayed the highlights, or whatever we should call them. I have to agree with your stand on capital punishment.

Elizabeth said...

Will you be near SLC? The Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area contains the best birding in all of Utah. At least, as best I can tell in my 7 months of living here. :-)

Climenheise said...

Enjoy Utah. Given its proximity to Yellowstone, it should be beautiful. Agreed that the means are the less important part of this story. I understand arguments for the death penalty -- the best ones treat it simply a a matter of justice: a life for a life; but in the end I side with you. i don't see that it brings real justice. Families who think it will bring them resolution or a sense of completion find that revenge is a poor motive for punishment and does not bring healing. I can't think of anyone who really wins. And, of course, when the guilty person is later found to be innocent and wrongly convicted, the death penalty removes any chance of redress at all.

NCmountainwoman said...

I agree with you 100%. I couldn't believe the outcry over the method and hardly a discussion over the issue.

Anonymous said...

Raising my hand in agreement with you. There are things I'd like to see the state do in the name of justice. Killing someone--even if there is no question of guilt-- is not one of them.