Capital Punishment in the U.S.: “The machinery of death.”
Reading “Can Executions Be More Humane,” in The Atlantic, this writer recalled an eighth-grade student from many years ago who would come to class during a series of discussions about capital punishment and present a “new” method of execution in class each day. The student presented these alternative and gory methods of putting people to death partly in jest.
Professor Michael Copeland, who teaches criminal justice in Oklahoma, put forward a method of execution using “nitrogen-induced hypoxia” as an alternative to Oklahoma’s method of lethal injection. Readers are probably very familiar by now with the botched series of lethal injections across the U.S. because of the unavailability of the most commonly used lethal injection drug (because of producer objections to capital punishment) and the substitutes that have been utilized in untested concoctions that have resulted in several horrific deaths.
In reviewing the countries around the world that use the death penalty, not a single country that uses the death penalty can compare to the U.S. in terms of social, political and economic development. In other words, the U.S. stands alone among what some might call the industrialized world in using the death penalty.
Why does the U.S. stand alone in regard to capital punishment and why do critics of executions fight so vehemently when alternatives to the death penalty for keeping society safe from criminals are proposed?
Part of the answer may lie in the Puritanical religious underpinnings of the system of punishment (a kind of fire and brimstone system of “justice”) in the U.S., and part of the answer may lie in the simple issue of fear and retribution.
The U.S., a nation that rose to fight fascism around the world during World War II, has become very fearful of crime since the world economy was transformed and globalized following the decade of the 1970s. During this period a large segment of the population became marginalized. Where manufacturing had provided jobs for masses of people during and after World War II, the global economy began siphoning off good entry-level jobs rendering masses of people unemployable. To some extent, in the place of a vibrant economy for the many, came marginal jobs for millions and a growing gap between the wealthy and the working and middle classes. Some on the margins of society turned to crime.
The attacks of September 2001 created a very real fear among masses of people and many were willing to trade hard-won civil liberties for a sense of security. The criminal at home joined the foreign enemy in the minds of many. Often the enemy had a religious and a national identity much different from those valued by some. While terror attacks were rare after September 2001, the Boston Marathon bombing frightened people in a very visceral way and raised many of the same questions about safety and fear that began after September 2001.
Thirty-two states now have the death penalty in addition to both the federal government and the military. And while the death penalty has lost favor with many in recent years, those states such as Texas, Georgia, and Florida, among others, actively pursue the death penalty as punishment for serious felonies.
Is society safer because of the use of the death penalty in the U.S.? Is it a deterrent against crime and just retribution for heinous crimes? The answer is that death penalty states have a universally higher murder rate than states that do not use capital punishment. It seems that in many states in the U.S., citizens are still comfortable with the ancient Hammurabi’s Code that called for an eye for an eye as punishment for serious crimes. In terms incarceration in the U.S., this nation imprisons more of its citizens–707 per 100,000–than comparable nations.
In recent years, the rights of surviving victims of heinous crimes have become a large part of the debate about executions in the U.S. Also, those on death row who have been exonerated through the use of DNA have become a major part of the capital punishment debate, as have the large numbers of minority group members and poor people who have been put to death through the use of capital punishment.
The late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun stated perhaps the highest moral opinion about capital punishment when he said “I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” When governments are in the business of putting people to death, questions arise about the role of the state in murder.