Sunday, April 30, 2017

Death Sanctioned

There is something sadistic and perverted about strapping someone to a gurney and injecting them with fluid and watch them descend into death. I always wondered what goes through the minds of those who are invited to view this ghastly ritual, let alone the person sinking. What solace does it bring to those who have lost loved ones to witness the death of the person who brought them misery? What gratification can be drawn from viewing the controlled death of another human being no matter how soulless that individual may have been? People say it brings closure, but at what cost and what purpose? Can the death of another person seared into one's memory ease the pain? I personally have not experienced the murder or rape of a loved one to walk in the shoes of those who have. But I cannot fathom being a spectator to the death of another, to quench my thirst for justice or seek closure. 
Sanctioned death as a form of justice was instituted since murder began and it has always been a spectacle. From  medieval times to the wild west, going to see public executions was a family outing. Even in recent times public executions in totalitarian states were used to instill fear and were often carried out in stadiums or city squares for all to witness. Hanging, stoning, decapitation, burning, boiling, crushing, dismemberment by horses, shooting, gassing, electrocution and lethal injection were some of the methods devised to kill. Death by hanging, shooting and lethal injection is still common around the world.

When the world emerged from the horrors of World War II, the move to abolish capital punishment began to gain ground. Taking someone's life by state sanction was seen as a gross violation of one's human right. As a result most developed nations abolished the death penalty, either in law or in practice. The United States is the only western nation that continued to put people to death. Out of the 50 states that make up the United States, 31 use the death penalty and so does the federal government. Today there are approximately 2900 inmates on death row across the nation, and 1400 have been executed since 1976.

On April 25, two prisoners were put to death by lethal injection in Arkansas in a single day. A double execution on the same day had not occurred since 2000 in the United States. On April 20th, another inmate had been executed and there were five more to follow. The state of Arkansas had not carried out a death sentence since 2005 and there seemed to be a sudden rush to put eight people to death who were condemned more than a decade ago. The reason, the drugs that are used to carry out the executions, were to expire. The drug of choice Midazolam was hard to come by, and the state was not willing to let it go to waste. So they scheduled to kill eight over a span of eleven days, the fastest pace of executions in decades. In all they managed to execute four. An injunction from a federal judge halted the executions citing, that the method of execution violated the inmates eighth amendment rights, which guaranteed a painless death. And the drugs being used to carry out the executions could not guarantee that. The Judge wrote "If Midazolam does not adequately anesthetize plaintiffs, or if their executions are 'botched, ' they will suffer severe pain before they die". Many drug manufacturers have objected to having their products used in executions and have refused to sell to prisons for this very reason. Previous botched executions by lethal injection around the country had created a climate of bad PR for the drug companies.

 A family member of one of the victims thanked the Arkansas Governor and the Department of Corrections for "flawlessly carrying out" the executions. According to an Associated Press reporter who witnessed one of the executions, the person "lurched and convulsed 20 times during the lethal injection".

All those who were sentenced to die, had no doubt committed horrific crimes. Their public death was no less horrific.

The debate around capital punishment and its use has always been a contentious one. Those who support the death penalty are seen as conservative in their viewpoint and those who oppose liberal. Those who support it offer a narrative which states that it deters crime, and some crimes warrant swift justice. Those who oppose it say, it is inhuman for a state to oversee the death of an individual as murder is murder either way. And statistics show that having the death penalty has not deterred crime and caused any significant dent in the murder rate. Amnesty International, the human rights organization that meticulously documents every execution around the planet, states that "the death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment". Also the death penalty disproportionately befalls those who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups, the poor and people with mental illness.

Capital punishment is a popular position to take on the conservative side, as it sends a signal that they are tough on crime and therefore care for society at large. But what creates a criminal is seldom addressed. It is paradoxical that on one hand a gun culture is promoted and endorsed, which to a large extent leads to violent death, and then the death penalty is seen as a solution to deter crime.

The gravest problem with the death penalty is that it is so absolute that it is irreversible. Since 1973, about 150 prisoners have been sent to death, who were later exonerated of their crime. Others have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt. Some of those who were executed in Arkansas claimed they were wrongly convicted. DNA testing has exonerated many on death row and it is routinely denied in many cases.

A very important question to ask is, what is achieved in tangible terms by executing someone other than maybe some sense of closure to those violated. An often expressed heartless comment is, "well it saves tax payer dollars". The upkeep of a prisoner is a drain on the system. In reality what saves tax payer dollars is an investment in society that provides better mental health to those in need and not executions. While politicians squabble over health care and gun control, peoples lives are constantly put at risk.  The American prison system is overburdened disproportionately by African American inmates. Violent death from guns in the United States is the highest in the developed world. Investing in addressing these societal problems actually saves tax payer dollars and improves the health of a nation.

The debate on what kind of punishment suits a crime is an old and fierce one, around which complex laws have been formulated. The depraved custom of state sanctioned death is always seen as the final solution to extreme criminality. Two films Dead Man Walking and Into the Abyss, captured the complexity and humanity of a system that puts people to death with great dramatic effect, nuance and weighty introspection. To me the most profound commentary on capital punishment in popular culture was made by Anthony Burgess in his 1962 dystopian novel, The Clockwork Orange. The book follows the life of a deviant, antisocial, delinquent Alex, who engages in "ultra-criminal" behavior. After he is arrested, as an alternative to being executed, he is put through a controversial psychological rehabilitation program to cure him of his criminality. Alex plays along as he is subjected to various invasive experiments and is later proclaimed cured. As he walks out of the prison a free man, he briefly relapses into contemplating images of violence in his mind in front of an applauding audience and says "I was cured, all right"!. What Anthony Burgess conveys, is that the onus of creating a better human being is on all of us. There is no absolute antidote to prevent aberrant human behavior. But the legalized killing of someone for their crime is pointless and barbarous. Rehabilitation may not be totally possible, but for a humane society, it is a goal worth pursuing. State sanctioned executions are unethical and immoral in any society as they only bloody the system. It is what it is.