Monday, June 21, 2010

Civilization and the Death Penalty

First, a couple of pictures:

This is the chair Ronnie Lee Gardner sat in as he was executed by a firing squad in Utah.

And this is the wall the executioners stood behind.

I've discussed Jeffrey Reiman's argument about capital punishment here before as it relates to torture. But the recent execution by firing squad got me thinking about it again, particularly as it relates to the reality of the need for executioners in a government which allows for capital punishment. Here's how I summarized it in the earlier post:
Being a civilized nation entails that we turn away from cruel and horrible ways of treating people. We like to believe that we've evolved past the enjoyment of public hangings, drawing-and-quartering criminals, and displaying the heads of beheaded criminals on public fenceposts. But to evolve past this, we need to also move past the necessity to have executioners among us. What does it do to an individual to be the one whose job it is to kill people? Can someone who has this job comfortably live among others in a civilized nation? And what must our self-conception be if we're OK with the fact that our criminal justice system necessitates the existence of executioners?
Obviously there's an executioner, or several executioners, in every form the death penalty takes. But in particularly violent methods like firing squads, the question of what it means to adhere to a system that requires some of the citizens of your nation to get paid for killing others seems particularly salient. Obviously military service is an instance of getting paid to kill. But something about the quiet calculation involved in executions, the protection and anonymity provided by the wall the marksmen (markswomen?) stand behind, the helplessness of the convict as he's strapped to the chair, the spectacle an execution always becomes as friends and family watch from behind darkened glass... I'm not really sure what arguments could be made that this is the action of a civilized nation.

Incidentally, while writing this post I learned that markswoman is not a recognized word in our language, while marksman is. And they say language isn't normative. How cute.


  1. Justine6/22/2010

    I'm surprised there hasn't been more media discussion of the people behind the guns. There does seem to be a lot of fascination with the chair and the bulletholes in it.

  2. Anonymous6/22/2010

    I'm gonna guess its mostly some pretty manly men who apply for the job of firing squad dude. Which is ironic given that wall they stand behind.

  3. humorlessfeminist6/22/2010

    I actually think this is better - more honest, maybe - than a method like lethal injection. Death is ugly, and at least using a firing squad you're not trying to sanitize it and distance the executioners from it.

  4. Winona6/22/2010

    I suppose this ugly need for executioners is the reason why the state goes to such great lengths to hide the identity of the marksmen and puts blanks in someone's gun so that nobody knows if it was him (her) who fired the fatal shot or not. They probably believe it mitigates this question of whether we want to live next door to someone who kills for a living because of the probable psychological consequences of a job like that. I wonder if they add money for counseling for the marksmen into the DOC budget?

  5. Anonymous6/23/2010

    The marksmen/markswoman thing is very interesting. Very.

  6. Minerva6/23/2010

    Isn't it funny how we think of certain Arab countries as barbaric for stoning people to death and chopping off limbs? We still execute people by firing squad for crying out loud!

  7. cheesecakelover6/24/2010

    I'm inclined to agree that we should use the more violent and repugnant methods as long as we're going to have the death penalty at all. Why try to make something that's simply not civilized appear more civilized by whitewashing it? Whether you shoot someone or give them a lethal injection, the state is still killing. And that's the bottom line.

  8. Anonymous6/24/2010

    And there's an executioner (or several) whether you use lethal injections or firing squads.