The immoral maze of the death penalty

The US state of Oklahoma’s recent move to introduce nitrogen gas executions has apparently been 'inspired' (if that’s the right word) by the former Conservative minister Michael Portillo’s TV programme about supposedly 'humane' execution methods. If the proposal goes through it means that in the event of lethal injection drugs not being available in Oklahoma, the state’s two death row institutions (one for men, one for women) would revert to execution method #2: death-by-gasmask. 

As grotesque as it sounds, Portillo reckons nitrogen gas suffocation is the “perfect killing device, an entirely humane way of killing a prisoner.” There’s a history to this sort of thing. Since at least 1889 and New York State’s introduction of the electric chair, various lawmakers and governments have been intent on developing more 'humane' methods of execution (even the guillotine and other earlier beheading machines may have had speed, 'efficiency' and pain-minimisation in mind). 

So 125 years ago we had 'modern' death by electricity rather than the messy business of strangulation/spinal cord severance by hanging. Then, over in Britain, which didn’t adopt the electric chair, there were the 'tidier', pseudo-scientific measured drops of Albert Pierrepoint’s hangings, another supposedly humane innovation. Then lethal injection, with its pseudo-medical procedure, complete with hospital trolley-like gurneys and all-white execution chambers.

Now, after it’s become all too evident that the drugs don’t always work and grisly botched executions are the result, there are these swerves toward gasmasks and (in Utah) firing squads*. Meanwhile, the state of Alabama has reintroduced the electric chair as a back-up to lethal injections (Tennessee did the same last year), and a state senator in Nebraska is proposing a combination of a lethal injection and a firing squad. They’ll be back to hanging, drawing and quartering before long … 

(A thought. After the mass gassings of millions of Jewish and other people in the Nazi death camps, are we really going to have people gassed to death in 21st century USA? It’s a shocking thought, but then so too is the thought that dozens of executions by lethal injection occur in the USA every year. For the fuller picture over which countries - 22 in all - carried out executions last year, go here).

But how 'humane' is any of this, no matter which method is used? Given of course we’re already talking about a criminal justice system which effectively says to the accused: you’re on trial for your life; if we find you guilty we’re going to kill you. Given this - and everything that may go with it (concocted or withheld evidence, highly political cases, bungled trials, disparities between the imposition of a death sentence in one case and not in another almost identical one, and so on and so on), does it even matter which method they use? I’d say no, not really. They’re all inhumane in principle. The practice is simply another layer of inhumanity, to a greater or lesser degree. 

In his essay Reflections On Hanging, Arthur Koestler pinpoints the true horror of the death penalty - its pretence at civility. Remembering the chilly bureaucratic atmosphere of Kafka’s world, Koestler says:

“There is indeed a Kafkaesque horror attached to an execution, which goes beyond the mere fear of death or pain or indignity. It is connected not with the brutality but with the macabre, cold-blooded politeness of the ceremony, in which the person whose neck is to be broken is supposed to collaborate in a sensible manner, as if it were a minor surgical operation.”

Those about to be executed who struggle or scream (like the Burmese woman Laila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim dragged through a car-park to be publicly beheaded in Mecca earlier this year) rupture this façade of civility. They remind us of the true horror of the so-called 'execution protocol'. Yes, I know that some people may say: Ah, but what about the people they killed? Who cares about their struggles, their screams? And the answer is: we all do, or all should, and that’s why we should invest our efforts in a justice system that’s fair, well-resourced, free of bias and discrimination, but also free of cruelty (the cruelty is best left to the murderers, not aped in the punishments).

Well, there you have it. I’ve laid my moral cards on the table. Unlike, Mr Portillo, I don’t believe in the search for the 'perfect killing device' and I can’t help thinking that the former member for Enfield Southgate should stick to his great train journeys or his pundit role on Radio 4’s Moral Maze.

Those who cite religious texts or 'morality' or 'justice' as they call for capital punishment may do so 'in good faith' (though some do not), but even a brief glance at the shocking state of capital punishment around the world should quickly disabuse them of this faith. There’s an easy way out of this particular moral maze: just accept that killing people in the name of justice is indefensible and get rid of the death penalty.

*If you happen to own a pair of Nike trainers, you might be less than inspired to go for a run in them or whatever when you realise that their 'inspirational' Just Do It slogan is apparently an adaptation of Gary Gilmore’s last words as he faced a firing squad in Utah in 1977. Looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes indeed. Whoosh! Maybe I’ll stick to my no-trainers policy … 

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
View latest posts