Taking Vengeance Out of the Death Penalty
I recently came across an article detailing the ways in which lethal injection is changing – and not for the better. The author, Andrew Cohen, quickly connects the advent of various technologies to methods of execution techniques (fire/burning heretics, carpentry/crucifixion, electricity/electric chair, chemistry/lethal injection, etc.) and then claims that it is science that the modern world has been hiding behind:
By purporting to ease the suffering of the condemned as he is killed, the procedure is supposed to neutralize concerns that any particular execution is “cruel” under the Eighth Amendment. And by purporting to put the prisoner to deep sleep first before the poison was administered, the practice is supposed to assuage whatever guilt exists in the minds of the executioner, or the administrator, over the intentional taking of life. We hide behind science, in other words, and then pat ourselves on the back for our ingenuity.
Cohen’s overall message in the article is that these two “pillars of support for lethal injection,” removing any cruelty and assuaging the guilt of the executioner (or guards, or Governor…), are about to be toppled. Because of a shortage of an essential drug, Pentobarbitol, used in the initial stages of the execution to put the condemned to sleep, some states have been searching for replacements with unfortunate and sometimes horrifying results. Even if lethal injection were to continue without issue, Cohen argues, execution is still execution and there’s no way to get around it.
Making executions tidier does not make the dead any less dead or those who authorize the poison any less culpable for taking life. It is the act of capital punishment itself, not just the manner in which it is carried out, that carries the moral force. And no human development, no magic pill, no sterile syringe, can change that.
Though it is never specifically articulated in the article, there is a tension between the seriousness of taking another person’s life and the general attitude of the citizenry – especially the victims of a given crime – toward those being executed. The culture and language surrounding support for the death penalty is often one of vengeance or, at best, an over-inflated sense of justice; one in which an individual can determine that another individual deserves to die.
I don’t deny that there may be a natural inclination (in an unredeemed sort of way) toward revenge or payback. We see it throughout the Old Testament across nearly every ancient culture, yet in a civilized society such as our own, we still appeal to the concept of eye-for-an-eye. Not only are we as Christians called to forgive our enemies, but also to follow Christ’s example on the cross where he did not reciprocate hate and violence, but absorbed it.
Fourteen years ago, I was in confession, listening to the visiting priest counsel me on my many sins. For my penance, the priest told me to pray for the conversion of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who was scheduled to be executed sometime in the upcoming months. Surprised, I ask the priest why he would suggest that as a penance. He responded, saying, “Can you imagine what would happen if he embraced God and asked for forgiveness?” So I prayed. I recall looking through the Dallas Morning News on day he was executed, looking for any account of a last minute conversion. Instead, I found a quote from a man, a family member of a bombing victim, who watched the execution via closed circuit TV:
The camera was right above his bed and he looked right into it. I felt like he was staring right at me. And I could see in his eyes that if he could, he’d do it all over again.
That quote has stuck with me, largely because of the wholesale emotional projection and ridiculousness bundled into it. I felt sorry for the man who said it, that clearly there were issues much deeper than McVeigh still being alive. Cohen quotes a victim’s family member responding to a question about possible terror or suffering the inmate might experience during execution: “He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her.” That’s the thing about eye-for-an-eye; it’s supposed to hurt.
Can someone actually determine that another person deserves to die? Honestly, I think what one person deserves over another is such a complex abstraction that it’s impossible to find any conclusion. What’s the one thing all human persons deserve? Hell; let’s move on from there. If we don’t receive what we deserve, it is only because of God’s grace. If God’s grace preserves us from what we truly deserve, isn’t the untimely death of anybody a usurpation of the work of God’s grace in their life? After all, that’s what makes murder wrong in the first place. Again, what human can judge a person to be deserving of death? Interestingly enough, the Catechism’s instruction on the death penalty doesn’t even mention such a thing:
2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
The paragraph continues, emphasizing that the opportunity for redemption must not be removed through execution, but it’s easy enough to see that the criteria is based on a continuing threat to society rather than past deeds. Another way to look at it would be that it doesn’t matter if a person deserves to die or not, since they’re a continuing danger to other humans, they’ll be executed.
What’s rather bizarre is that in our progressively secular-humanist, atheistically-scientific culture, capitol-level justice seems to revolve around the intangible articulation of what a person deserves rather than a much more objective assessment of how dangerous they continue to be. If this is the only determination, that the prisoner is an enduring threat to those around him, how would this affect society’s preference for vengeance – and should the executioner then fear his office?
Let me know below in the comments.