"If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it." — W.C. Fields
It is to the great credit of the American people that we aren’t good at capital punishment. It is time to admit that to ourselves, and give up on it once and for all.
The death penalty was constitutional in the United States, and widely practiced, for a long time. Then it was unconstitutional for several years. Then it was constitutional again. At least, in certain states and under certain circumstances that we never have really been able to nail down.
Even our founding document is of two minds about it. The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights presumes the existence of the ultimate penalty, referring to rules for those accused of a "capital, or otherwise infamous crime," even as it forbids "cruel and unusual punishments."
Capital punishment, in any nation that we would recognize as civilized, is increasingly unusual. Nations that practice it, for example, are not welcome as members of the European Union, and may find it difficult to extradite accused criminals from nations that have forsworn it.
And getting around the "cruel" part has caused us to experiment with means and methods that, viewed from any rational standpoint, just get more gruesome and macabre.
We’ve tried axes, guillotines, rope, rifles, electricity, poison gas and, most recently, lethal injections. We used to make open events, even festivities, of executions. Now we hide them away, all but destroying any deterrent value, out of a realization that they are unavoidably sickening events.
Yet capital punishment is not going quietly into that good night.
The use of lethal injections — preferred for many years as a "humane" way of ending decades of threats and empty hopes held by a few death row inmates whose innocence hadn’t (yet) been established — has become problematic. Companies that make medicines, especially those that do a lot of business in anti-death penalty Europe, are increasingly upset about the concoctions they sell as life-saving substances being used to cause death. So they’ve stopped selling them to states for that purpose.
Improvised alternatives aren’t working out so well, as was demonstrated last week when an Ohio experiment left a condemned man gasping and gurgling for maybe a half hour.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Wyoming and Missouri have floated the idea of bringing back the firing squad, something that even Utah has abandoned for future cases because it results in a disgraceful and sick atmosphere, more appropriate in decadent Rome than in civilized America.
It is time to admit that, as a culture, our heart just isn’t in capital punishment. We should end it, once and for all.
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