What’s Crueler Than Being Cruel? Ice Cold.

We Americans sure do love our death penalty.  And why shouldn’t we?  All the fun of death and human suffering mixed with the thrill of the penal system.  Who could resist?

Well apparently one inmate was not so charmed by his execution.  On Tuesday, the State of Oklahoma seriously botched the lethal injection of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett, who remained conscious and in apparent intense pain for several minutes after being injected before he died of a heart attack.  The incident is expected to add fuel to the debate on methods of execution in the U.S.

We really are a funny country.  The consensus is clear that Americans support capital punishment, but we’re also totally offended when pain is caused when an execution is carried out.  Lockett was a really bad dude.  The pain that he experienced during his execution pales in comparison to the pain and suffering that he caused in life.  And yet, we have a real problem with his suffering.  Why is that?

The politically correct answer is that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard than those who we condemn, so even if we’re going to kill them we have to do so “humanely.”  Not to mention the whole Eighth Amendment thing, in which the No Fun Police decided to ban cruel and unusual punishment.

But is there ever anything “humane” about killing someone?  And even if there is, does it make any difference once the deed is done?  And while the death penalty may not be unusual (at least, not in the United States), it’s odd to say that it shouldn’t qualify as cruel.  If killing a person isn’t cruel, what is?

The politically correct response is that it’s not cruel because the convicted person deserves it, and, I guess, because cruelty is a relative concept so an execution is not cruel when you consider the suffering of the convicted person’s victims.  But if that’s true, why do we care so much about whether the execution is “humane”?  Why should anyone who believes that Lockett deserved to die be so bothered by his suffering before death?  Presumably a person who deserves to be killed could also be forced to handle a little pain in the process, right?

In case you can’t tell, I’m pretty skeptical of the politically correct answers.  I think that the real reason that we care about a botched execution is that it makes it so much more difficult to forget what’s actually happening.  A nice, clean execution feels so sterile, almost medical.  It doesn’t have the violent flavor that we generally associate with a person being killed in a completely unnatural way.  But a messy execution like Lockett’s makes you think about the reality of an execution.  It forces you to contemplate that we kill prisoners in this country.  That’s why we don’t allow executions to be televised – we like to eat sausage but we don’t want to see how it’s made.

Despite all of that, capital punishment remains popular among the American public, which makes sense.  The fact that it costs more to execute a person than it does to keep them alive in prison for the rest of their natural life isn’t enough to sway public opinion.  Neither is the fact that our justice system is imperfect and we know that we sometimes convict innocent people.  We also don’t seem to care that we’re the only First World nation that still executes prisoners.  So why would we be swayed by the fact that killing a person is just some pretty icky business?

What’s crueler than being cruel?  Ice cold.  That’s America, we’re ice cold.

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One comment

  1. […] Several months ago I got up on my high horse about our strange American conception of the death pena… – we like to kill our bad guys, but we hate to hear that they suffered. It’s clear to me that we really just don’t want to have to think about what we’re actually doing. Nobody wants to look behind the curtain. […]

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