One of my reasons for detailing in yesterday’s post the various, fairly unpleasant methods which states use to carry out executions is because I find it interesting that the focus, with one or two honourable exceptions, does not appear to be on minimising the suffering of the condemned individual. In the US, for instance, the “triple cocktail” of drugs used for lethal injections has been banned from veterinary use as it is believed to cause undue suffering. And yet they still happily use it on humans. The quickest, cleanest and most certain means of killing a human being is probably a small-bore bullet to the back of the head, which should not be beyond the wit of man to organise, but as far as I know, states don’t tend to employ it. The question is, why?
One of the things which is interesting to me is the element of ritual inherent in most state-sponsored executions. In Iran, where we started, this is embodied by qisas, the tenet of sharia law which enables the family of the victim to carry out the execution. In the US, there is something similar in those states which allow the families of the victims to witness the execution. The prisoner strapped to the gurney for the lethal injection, the grim spectacle of the electric chair and the gas chamber, even the hangings which took place in British prisons on the stroke of eight, all have their ritual element. Other things contribute to this: the last meal, the predestined time, the silent crowds outside the prisons waiting for news; it’s clear, to me at least, that there is something more going on than merely taking someone’s life. But what?