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November 6, 2011 / Joshua

The (Un)Sanitization of the Death Penalty

Last month, I reflected a bit on the death penalty in light of the controversial Troy Davis execution. In that post, I mentioned the crowd at the Republican debate that applauded Texas’s high number of executions and how I was struck by the lack of doubt the crowd and Gov. Rick Perry seemed to have about the subject.

I’d forgotten to mention this, but I remember thinking at the time that I could only really make sense of the responses from Perry and the crowd by imagining that these responses resulted from a very black and white view of the world. A view that says, we are the good guys, and there are very bad, bad people out there who do very bad, bad things. And merely if the good criminal justice system says so and so is one of those bad, bad people, we must unapologetically punish them accordingly without question or hesitation.

That, it seems, is the attitude of Florida state representative, Brad Drake. Last month, Drake filed a bill that would allow executions to be carried out only by electrocution or firing squad, rather than by lethal injection. Here’s Drake’s thinking on the matter:

“There shouldn’t be anything controversial about a .45-caliber bullet. If it were up to me we would just throw them off the Sunshine Skyway bridge and be done with it.” (link)

“I am sick and tired of this sensitivity movement for criminals,” Drake said. “Every time there is a warranted execution that is about to take place, some man or woman is standing on a corner holding a sign, yelling and screaming for humane treatment.

“I have no desire to humanely respect those that are inhumane.”(link)

Yikes. OK. Well, let’s look beyond the general cruelty and brutality in that sentiment for a minute. Drake’s attitude reminds me a lot of the attitudes of defenders of torture – or, ahem, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ – over the last few years. The two disturbing components I would always catch listening to such talkers on the radio and whatnot were, 1), no concern over how the detained person in question is treated, because, “Hey, they’re a terrorist. This is what they deserve, if not worse.”, and 2), no question or concern over whether said person is in fact a guilty person in the first place.

The lingering presence of that attitude in our culture, whether it pertains to the justice system here at home, or conduct in wars abroad, seriously troubles me. In no small part, because, beyond the regardless ethical problems and inhumanity of executions and torture therein, neither area is anywhere near as black and white as people who support such methods seem to want to think they are. Evidence has shown that we get the wrong people all the time.

You’d think all the false convictions that have been overturned would have undermined support for the death penalty in this country more than they have. Radley Balko had an interesting article recently about why Americans still support the death penalty. Making this topic even more complex, Balko concludes the article with discussion of evidence that lethal injections might not actually be the most humane and painless form of execution. Instead, he suggests, we’ve opted for lethal injection because it simply appears humane and painless to us – because it comfortably “sanitizes” the death penalty.

Balko suggests that if we did do the kind of executions again which Rep. Drake wants, that would probably turn a lot more people off to the death penalty; I kind of liken that to the idea of asking supporters of the death penalty if they could actually pull the switch themselves. But if it’s true that most people would recoil at harsher appearing executions and rethink their support, then what does that say about the people out there like Brad Drake who not only have no qualms about executions at all, but really want them to not only be harsh and brutal, but really appear harsh and brutal too?

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