A good essay on the death penalty by Christopher Hitchens. - Dallas
Arthur Koestler opened his polemic against capital punishment in Britain by saying that the island nation was that quaint and antique place where citizens drove on the left hand side of the road, drank warm beer, made a special eccentricity of the love of animals, and had felons “hanged by the neck until they are dead.” Those closing words—from the formula by which a capital sentence was ritually announced by a heavily bewigged judge—conveyed in their satisfyingly terminal tones much of the flavor and relish of the business of judicially inflicted death.
The last hanging in Britain occurred in 1964. Across the channel in France, the peine de mort was done away with by the Mitterrand administration in the early 1980s. So the two great historic homelands of theatrical capital punishment—conservative Britain with its “bloody code” and exemplary gibbetings described by Dickens and Thackeray, and Jacobin France with its humanely utilitarian instrument of swift justice for feudalism promoted by the good Doctor Guillotin—have both dispensed with the ultimate penalty. The reasoning was somewhat different in each case. In Britain there had been considerable queasiness as a consequence of a number of miscarriages of justice that had led to the hanging of the innocent. In France, in the memorable words of Mitterrand’s Minister of Justice, M. Robert Badinter, the scaffold had come to symbolize “a totalitarian concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state.”
Since then no country has been allowed to apply for membership or association with the European Union without, as a precondition, dismantling its apparatus of execution. This has led states like Turkey to forego what was once a sort of national staple. The United Nations condemns capital punishment—especially for those who have not yet reached adulthood—and the Vatican has come close to forbidding if not actually anathematizing the business. This leaves the United States of America as the only nation in what one might call the West, that does not just continue with the infliction of the death penalty but has in the recent past expanded its reach. More American states have restored it in theory and carried it out in practice, and the last time the Supreme Court heard argument on the question it was to determine whether capital punishment should be inflicted for a crime other than first-degree murder (the rape of a child being the suggested pretext for extension).
To be in the company of Iran and China and Sudan as a leader among states conducting execution—and to have pioneered the medicalized or euthanized form of it that is now added to the panoply of gassing, hanging, shooting, and electrocution and known as “lethal injection”—is to have invited the question why. Why is the United States so wedded to the infliction of the death penalty? I have heard a number of suggested answers: two in particular have some superficial plausibility. The first is an old connection between executions and racism, and the second is the relatively short distance in time that separates the modern U.S. from the days of frontier justice.
Now it is true that you are very much more likely to be put to death by the state if you are a black person who has murdered a white person than you are if that condition is stated in reverse. Indeed, it was this disparity among others that led to the practice being suspended so widely for so long. And it is also true that the business of execution is carried on more enthusiastically and more systematically in the states of the former Confederacy. On both the occasions when I myself have visited death row, once in Mississippi and once in Missouri, the historic Dixie stench that surrounded the proceedings was absolutely unmistakable. Bill Clinton’s 1992 execution of the mentally disabled black man Ricky Ray Rector—at a strategic moment in the evolution of the red-faced governor of Arkansas into the trustworthy figure of an “electable” neoliberal— was the closest thing to a straight-out lynching that has been seen in the past generation. But traditional bigotries do not explain why the penalty has lately been restored in New York and California, and why a Federal execution “facility” has been built in Terre Haute, Indiana, birthplace of Eugene Debs (and used as a launching pad from which to kick the ultrawhite Timothy McVeigh off the planet).
Our historic proximity to the wild-and-woolly days of yore won’t quite elucidate the phenomenon either. Europe in the last few decades saw a very great deal more violence and chaos on its own soil than any American has ever had to witness on home turf, even at Antietam or in the Wilderness campaign; yet there isn’t a gallows left between Lisbon and the Urals. “Terrorism”—the gravamen of the charge against McVeigh and the excuse for Clinton’s post-Oklahoma City “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act”—doesn’t quite cut it either. Israel is much more frequently and savagely hit by indiscriminate attacks on its civilians, and it does not have resort to the death penalty.
Read the rest on Laphams Quarterly.