Saturday, July 26, 2014

This is the end, my beautiful friend, the end....

In his last battle with Voldemort, despite the fact witches and wizards we have come to know and love (all of them adults) are hurling death blasts at the enemy, Harry Potter faces Voldermort and defeats him with a purely defensive spell.  Voldemort pronounces his infamous "Let's have a corpse" (a loose translation, to be sure) and Harry counters with a spell to disarm.  Harry doesn't kill, Voldemort does, and the success of Harry's spell means the death spell strikes the one who conjured it.

Thus is Harry's world made morally safe for executions.

We have this strange relationship with state sponsored death; perhaps because we praise so much our democracy and "government of, by, and for the people."  But it is that form of government, Josh Marshall argues, that has kept the death penalty alive in America even as it has ended in Europe.   He points out that "37% of executions in the United States since the resumption of capital punishment in 1976 have taken place in Texas, and support for the death penalty is very high here. He also notes this, which has a bearing on my consideration of the topic, quoting Federal Judge Alex Kozinski:

 "Executions", he writes, "are, in fact, brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should we. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf." I'm not sure Kozinski has any problem with that. And many people are quite comfortable with it or claim that they are.

But the reality is that most are not.

Most of us never really have been.  When the executioner wielded an axe, he also wore a hood; anonymity of a sort provided absolution, of a sort.  The story is the guillotine was invented to make executions more humane (and, of course, more efficient).  We've never been wholly comfortable with the brutality of death; its why so many of us come back changed from war.

This isn't peculiar to America, but our response is peculiarly American.  After World War II it stopped being the War Department, and became the Defense Department, complete with a permanent headquarters originally designed as an archive (and that's the reason the Pentagon survived 9/11 with relatively little damage.  The floors were built to hold tons of paper.)  "Defense" sounds so much cleaner and more reasonable; "war" carries so many connotations of carnage and disaster.

Our Navy, now, far from being an military force capable of projecting fearsome power from the waves to any point on the globe, is a "global force for good."  And Israel has learned from us to defend even our destruction rained down on civilians and military foes indiscriminately; we make "surgical strikes" and "collateral damage" is the fault of the enemy using "human shields."  Because we don't want to kill anybody but "bad guys," which we all know from generations (now) of action movies, are the only people you can kill without compunction or even the mess of dead bodies (they just fall down, and an hour later the place is clean again.  Nobody even notices the slaughter, because it isn't slaughter; bad guys ain't human!).

All of this is in play now as we try, once again, to find a "humane" way to kill people.  It was supposed to be the electric chair; but that didn't work out.  Then it was lethal injection, and what could go wrong?  We anesthetize people for surgery, surely we can painlessly put them out of our misery.

Except, of course, doctors won't get involved in such matters; something about "First, do no harm," apparently.  So we kill the prisoners because we must, but we insist the killing be "humane" because, after all, we aren't savages.  The more cleanly and painlessly we can kill someone, the less of a burden it is on our collective conscience.

So the latest death didn't take two hours and involve torment tantamount to torture.  No, the prisoner was snoring!  After all, we aren't vicious killers; they are!

"While justice was carried out today, I directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the process,” she said. “One thing is certain, however: Inmate Wood died in a lawful manner, and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer. This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims—and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.”

As Dahlia Lithwick points out, this statement by Gov. Jan Brewer simultaneously says something went wrong and a full review must be demanded, but nothing went wrong because we aren't monsters like the guy we just took two hours to kill with drugs we can't tell anybody anything about because if we did we might not get anymore, and then we'd have to back to an even more inhumane method of execution, and as a state and nation, we aren't really ready to admit what the cost of killing someone really is.

Because we the people are not monsters.  We don't go to war, we "defend" the "global good."  And we don't kill people; we execute them in a humane and decent manner; even when we don't; even when we can't.  And if we can't, what then?

Miserable creatures that we are, who will free us from this prison?

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