A few days ago, two men were supposed to have been executed by lethal injection within hours of each other. One of them had been Tasered for refusing to leave his cell. It took almost an hour to find a vein which apparently collapsed during the procedure causing the victim agonising pain as he was insufficiently sedated, hence the lethal cocktail leaked into surrounding tissue. The other, two hours from his own introduction to the grim reaper, had his appointment delayed by six months.
The Death Penalty – let’s just capitalise it for a moment to emphasise the irony – is, according to Amnesty International “the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the State”.
Despite considerable deliberation – what man has not thought about such things – I am in no position to hold an opinion other than one of moral ambivalence. Indeed, I am not sure anyone else has either, compelling as both arguments surely are. The fact remains that peoples all over the world have ceremonial judicial systems, complete with strange garb and unfamiliar language which can under extreme circumstances, result in the dispensational ability of such systems to legally take life, often by quite exotic means.
So be it. If that is their stance, wish and procedure. There are deeper ethical questions to answer however. The use of chemicals is considered humane. Why then are drugs used in such a way as to expose the victim and an invited audience to a media sideshow, complete with “witnesses” and curtains as in a theatre? The victim is paraded before his audience on a cruciform trolley. He may or may not say something. There may be tears of remorse – who knows? A man may say almost anything when confronted with the inescapable removal of his soul from his body.
The composition of the lethal cocktail has been discussed at some length, first sedative then respiratory seizure then cardiac failure. Animals are “put to sleep” in veterinary clinics daily. It would be more humane to ask a vet to do it, rather than leaving it to people who have in whatever corner of their minds, notions of retribution, social payback or political expediency. In this unfortunate case, for a state that executes people on a regular basis, all that can be said is that they’re just not very good at it.
I remember as a teenager being enthralled by Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” whose lead character, a small time Party official in a fictionalised reconstruction of Stalin’s Terror was arrested, confessed and inevitably executed, for the greater good, of course. His death was memorably described as “a shrug of eternity”. If we no longer carry moral scruple, ritualised executions are no more or less than collective shrugs, clothed in ritual whose sole purpose, it seems, is to confer legitimacy. I think it’s time we all grew up.