Occasionally, the execution of a fellow human being becomes worthy of public attention.
In the West, media scrutiny is most prevalently focused on executions in those nations of the world we are happy to vilify. The recent execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Sung-taek, in North Korea is a case in point. But, China tops the list annually for the sheer quantity of executions as well as for the apparent lack of justice or transparency in their system; they refuse to even publicize the yearly numbers. Other nations make headlines due to the shock value of their antiquated techniques. Saudi Arabia, for example, beheaded a young immigrant housemaid last January—with a sword. Observers ridiculed the Kingdom since the girl was a minor at the time of her crime. A year earlier, a group of youths in the new Iraq were tragically targeted for death by stoning, which was carried out by militants who disapproved of their Western style clothing. The neighboring government of Iran recently announced their decision to finally ban the practice of stoning, which had been reserved for cases of adultery and was carried out there at least 99 times since 1980. Iran’s use of stoning came under so much public pressure that they cancelled the stoning of Saineh Mohammadi Shtiani who was convicted of murder and adultery; she will be hanged instead.
Such cases are lampooned in the West because their heinous nature seems proof of our relative civility. The dank, rusty, bloodstained cells we can all imagine in some anonymous Chinese prison make the sterile, white cubes of American prisons humane by comparison.
Mostly, though, people just don’t think about the death penalty. Even those who support the policy prefer to delegate the practice. This seems to be the preferred arrangement for most of the messier aspects of contemporary society. In fact, an easy comparison could be made to factory farming. In the same way we prefer not to be reminded of the actual slaughtering of animals required to produce our meals, we prefer to separate ourselves from the actual administering of the ultimate punishment—many executions happen in the dead of night. Just as we have developed processed meat products in plastic packaging to mask any hint of the once-living animals, we have developed sterilized methods of execution, through a needle or the flip of a switch, in order to remove the taint of barbarism.
Because of this separation from the act, we miss important insights that come from first-hand exposure. When my high school covered The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, we also took a class trip to a local meatpacking plant. The experience taught us not only about the working conditions for plant workers, but also offered us an unforgettable glimpse of the raw killing behind the clean rows of vacuum sealed flesh we consume at the deli. I will not soon forget the spectacle of the plant worker who inflated a pig intestine by blowing into it and then held it to his crotch gesticulating in simulated masturbation.
Now let’s consider this comparison from another angle. A good amount of attention has been given to the meat industry over the past few years. Some obviously advocate vegetarianism, but others simply argue for reform to the abusive conditions filmed by undercover activists, a practice that has sadly become illegal in many US states. Several recent books, such as Tovar Cerulli’s The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance, promote hunting as a more humane alternative to factory-farmed meat. Also, the Portland Meat Collective, established in 2009, connects consumers with local ranchers and farmers and then offers classes on butchering and preparing whole animals for consumption. The basic argument behind this movement is that if you are going to eat meat, you should understand where it comes from. And there’s the connection – perhaps we can make a similar case for capital punishment.
Whether you agree or disagree with the death penalty, direct exposure to it would be an important step to inform your opinion. For, as journalist Suzanne Donovan put it in her 1997 article in Mother Jones entitled “Shadow Figures: A Portrait of Life on Texas Death Row,” if a democratic society wants to carry out the death penalty “it is incumbent upon each of us to examine clearly and honestly what we have created.” One way to examine the process would be to implement a policy whereby citizens are required to witness or even participate in executions. This may sound like a radical proposal at first, so let’s examine the implications.
It may strike readers as an odd place to start, but one of the most concise and well-known presentations of the impact of firsthand participation in an execution comes from George Orwell. Orwell began his working life as a young junior officer in the Indian Imperial Police in 1922. Stationed in Burma, the would-be author no doubt had the opportunity to witness and participate in executions. In his narrative essay, aptly titled A Hanging, first published in 1950, he offers a first person account of such an event. By comparing the process outlined in Orwell’s story to Donovan and others, we may glean a fuller understanding of the way we kill our fellow human beings and the significance of exposure to it.
Orwell begins his Burma story at the cells, picking up the condemned. The cells reflect a primitive version of what we now call death row: “a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages.” Inside they were “quite bare…except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water.” Orwell describes the cells as ten by ten (presumably meters), while Donovan’s article puts Texas death row cells at five feet by nine feet. Being the largest execution state in the US, Texas has expanded its death row to six wings of cells, each with three tiers.
Long before an execution takes place these days, an intricate dance of legal proceedings allows months or years to pass as the prisoner awaits the outcome of appeals and clemency petitions until, finally, all hope is lost and the execution date is set. Even Orwell’s prisoner had the possibility of release; it is reported that when he heard his appeal was dismissed, “he pissed on the floor of his cell.” The uncertainty of this waiting period weighs on the convicts so acutely it becomes its own form of punishment. Donovan writes that they “learn more about themselves while waiting to die than they did in all the years they were free.” One can only guess what’s on each of their minds as they try “to make sense of what brought them to Death Row.” Similarly, Orwell mentions other “silent men…squatting…with their blankets draped around them” awaiting their imminent death. Since Orwell tells us they are all due for the gallows within the next few weeks, these must be the final holding cells. If they were in the US, each of the condemned would be asked to write a will, choose what he wants for his last meal, and list which visitors he wants to see.
The twists of mind that come with this final waiting period are illustrated in another important work of fiction, Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Originally published in French eight years prior to A Hanging, Camus’ condemned narrator labors to control his thoughts about “escaping the machinery of justice,” because he knows he will just be “caught up in the machinery again.” He struggles to focus his attention away from anxious thoughts about his possible parole, or even a pardon. He tries in vain to think of anything but the inevitable. “I would listen to my heartbeat,” he says, “I couldn’t imagine that this sound which had been with me for so long could ever stop.”
Given the prominent shadow that capital punishment was casting over the doomed life in Camus’ novel, his narrator tries desperately to retrieve any memories he may have stored about executions. He even chastises himself for not paying enough attention to the matter before, concluding that “a man should always take an interest in those things.”
Once the day arrives, prisoners today are generally allowed extended visits, meetings with their lawyers, and spiritual guidance from a religious leader. No privileges of this sort are extant in Orwell’s narrative. The condemned is Hindu, the main jailers presumably British Protestants unfamiliar with and unsympathetic to his beliefs. Only much later, after the noose is in place, will the condemned take it upon himself to chant: “Ram! Ram! Ram!” When the time comes, the prisoner is prepared. Orwell describes a delicate procedure of handcuffing the prisoner and chaining him to the guards. Today they would more likely be strapping him to a gurney and, instead of the long walk to the gallows, rolling him casually down a hall.
Orwell’s lean, journalistic prose leaves room for little beyond the bare essentials, yet vividly conveys the scene and a sense of inhabiting that place and time. Two key events happened during the forty-yard walk to the gallows. The first was the intrusion of a stray dog that “made a dash for the prisoner, and jumping up tried to lick his face.” The moment was important because the dog’s recognition of the prisoner’s humanity foreshadows the second key event: the narrator’s own similar realization. When the prisoner takes a simple step to avoid a puddle in the road, an action he had probably taken dozens of times instinctively during his life, the narrator is forced to see him for the first time, not as a condemned prisoner but as a man. Orwell wanted the impact of this to be clear:
“…till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”
Perhaps such a realization is impossible today when the prisoner is immobile on a gurney. Participants in such an execution might view the prisoner as a terminal patient undergoing a final surgery or, possibly, as a body ready for the morgue.
Although Orwell wants to make clear that the narrator has a moment of clarity here, probably an important turning point in the narrator’s consciousness, he is hardly alone in being affected by this man’s execution. He may be the only one able to articulate it, but everyone is feeling it. In the moments before the execution, while the prisoner chants, Orwell makes sure to tell us that “everyone had changed color…and one or two of the bayonets were wavering.” They all wanted it to be over quickly.
The act was so obviously vile that the job of hangman was delegated to a convict. It was the convict’s job to place the noose around the condemned man’s neck and it was the convict’s job to put a bag over the condemned man’s head, so that even while carrying out a hanging the other witnesses were offered some modicum of separation from the soon to be dead. Today the gallows have been replaced with a death chamber where IV lines dangle out of the walls rather than a noose that hangs from a beam. Instead of a bag over the head, there is a glass window covered by a curtain separating the doomed from the delegation of witnesses. Closed-circuit television monitors show the technicians inserting the needles and only after everything is in place will the curtains be pulled back to start the macabre theater of dying.
Even today this very simple process can go wrong. The technicians sometimes have trouble hitting the veins. Blocked IV lines can fail to deliver the lethal chemicals properly, leading to excruciating suffering before death. The characters in Orwell’s tale reflect positively on how smoothly that day’s execution went. It isn’t always so easy, one of them declares, “I have known cases where the doctor is obliged to go beneath the gallows and pull the prisoner’s legs to ensure decease. Most disagreeable!”
The characters in Orwell’s story laugh at this image. Even the narrator is laughing in the end as they all share a drink. Perhaps something similar happens today since Donovan writes that among the inmates on death row, “there are also stories of guards having parties before or during executions, and of body parts being sold by the system to medical researchers after executions.” But the laughter of the guards in Orwell’s tale is merely gallows humor. A coping mechanism.
Orwell states his position plainly: The experience turned him against capital punishment. Not everyone would react this way. Victim’s families often clamor for a seat at the execution and occasionally report disappointment at how little the condemned suffer. If executions became a civic duty, it is likely that many would continue to see it as a necessary evil. The cold ritualization of the process would likely trigger little empathy in anyone just following instructions. So, what if we took it a step further and broadcast executions? Many would call this barbaric. Public executions are too reminiscent of a Southern lynching or the Wild West. This assessment would be correct. It would be barbaric, but it would also be more honest. Like those who risk prosecution to film abuses in US factory farms, perhaps society would benefit from pulling back the curtain on the charade of civility we have drawn across capital punishment.
There are several possible outcomes of public executions and citizen participation. One danger is that it would normalize the process. But, isn’t that what we have already done? We have normalized it, sterilized it, and hidden it away. Perhaps a bigger danger stems from those who would seek it out for perverse entertainment. The hanging of Saddam Hussein certainly made the rounds on the web. But, there is also the possibility that it would have no impact. Those who participate in capital punishment now are not vocally opposed to it. Even the doctors who are technically breaking their Hippocratic oath to participate are largely silent. But, this brings us back to our comparison to factory farming. It's doubtful that very many vegetarians work at packing plants. Imagine if there were. Forcing participation on those who don’t already choose to be involved in capital punishment would likely lead to another possible outcome: moral outrage. Like Orwell, these people would be vocal in their dissent. But, unlike Orwell, their voices would be unexpected. Rather than writers, they would be mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They would be conservatives and liberals, atheists and evangelists. They would be voters. And perhaps then, amidst the complaints from those who would say it was disgusting to force them to take part, the entire procedure would be completely abandoned.
The condemned man in The Stranger recalls that his father had once witnessed a hanging.
“Just the thought of going had made him sick to his stomach. But he went anyway, and when he came back he spent half the morning throwing up. I remember feeling a little disgusted by him at the time. But now I understood, it was perfectly normal. How had I not seen that there was nothing more important than an execution, and that when you come right down to it, it was the only thing a man could truly be interested in?”
Far too much of our lives is spent isolated from anything that does not affect us directly. There is no longer a sense of citizenship, in fact, most people feel powerless and disconnected from the choices made in their names. Further, we are disconnected from any of the discomforts that may make our lives more comfortable. It will always be possible to find others to work at meatpacking plants, to fight wars, to pick up garbage and to administer executions so that the rest of us can carry on looking the other way. One way to change that would be to make it a civic duty: pay taxes every year, vote every four, pull jury duty occasionally, and at least once pay witness to an execution. It may not be “the only thing a man could truly be interested in,” but it certainly is one thing to care about. Perhaps if all of us are forced to face that side of the justice system, we will finally be willing to have a serious debate on the matter.
DEATH LIVE! Originally appeared in The Post American–Issue 2
Illustrations by Claudia Klaus Rowland