I wrote yesterday that opinions on the death penalty often seem to me to have much to do with gut feeling; about whether we can contemplate the execution of another human being as a possibility within our own personal frame of reference. In countries which have the death penalty and frequently carry it out, it seems to be much more thinkable than elsewhere; I suspect that this is what is meant by those who say that it brutalises societies which practice it.
Two relatively recent events, for me at least, seem to support this conclusion. For a long time during my twenties and thirties and even forties, notorious murder cases in this country would inevitably be accompanied by loud calls to “bring back hanging”, typified by large pictures of scaffolds and nooses on the front-pages of the red-tops and interviews with those, especially friends or family of the victims, who thought that the accused should be “strung up”. Interestingly, I don’t remember any such reaction following the horrific murder of Private Lee Rigby last year. There was an outpouring of public grief, enormous sympathy for his family, particularly his devastated mother, and revulsion against the murderers, but of calls to reinstate the death penalty, not so much.
Maybe I just missed it. Or maybe (as I must admit, I hope), it has become less thinkable as those who can remember the hanging of the last condemned person on the soil of mainland Britain move into their dotage and die. Maybe also the high-profile suicides of some individuals, such as Harold Shipman and Peter Sutcliffe, not to mention the clearly and frequently expressed desire to be allowed to kill himself of Ian Brady, have brought home to us that there are perhaps worse punishments than a swift and painless execution.
Contrast this with the reactions to the recent “botched” execution in Oklahoma. The choice of words in itself is odd, indicating the sort of mistake that leads to shelves collapsing and dumping a lifetime’s worth of knick-knacks on the floor, rather than a procedure which apparently lead to a sentient human being being injected with a untested cocktail of drugs which led to him writhing in agony for forty-five minutes before his heart gave out.
Under any other circumstances the people responsible would be investigated and possibly tried for manslaughter. In this particular case, the person or persons who made the decision to proceed with the untested drugs don’t appear to be the recipients of any especial attention, and any consideration that they should be investigated for not doing their jobs properly doesn’t even seem to have crossed anyone’s mind. It is apparently not acceptable for a doctor to act negligently in a manner which leads to the death of a high-profile patient such as Michael Jackson, leading to a criminal conviction and a jail sentence for that individual, but for the public servants responsible for the machinery of executions in Oklahoma to act negligently in a way which leads to a condemned man essentially being tortured to death, well, that’s apparently just an unfortunate but forgivable mistake.
Certainly in this country the reaction to the news of the Oklahoma execution appeared to be one of horror and revulsion. In the States, however, or at least in those States which uphold and practice the death penalty, the reaction has been somewhat different. True, they have suspended execution by lethal injection (SO embarrassing and unfortunate for all concerned, thanks to those pesky Europeans who won’t supply the tried’n’tested drugs), and, to be fair, they have leapt into action in other ways. No, not as one might expect, to investigate how the hell this horrific thing could have been allowed to happen and, even if no individuals were brought to book for it, to ensure that it could never happen again, but to safeguard their right to continue the practice of state-sanctioned killing. In Tennessee the governor has signed a bill allowing the reintroduction of the electric chair. Missouri is considering the reintroduction of the gas chamber and two other states are looking at the possibility of carrying out executions by firing squad.