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A Head-y Topic

January 16th, 2007

Yesterday, there was a great deal of fuss when the hanging of one of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen led to his accidental beheading. One of the executed man’s relatives referred to it as an “insult” to his body. (Is this what they mean by “adding insult to injury?”) Secretary of State Condi Rice said that the executions should have been handled with “greater dignity.”

I feel there’s a disconnect in this notion that killing someone should be handled with dignity and respect, that it should be neat and tidy without any unnecessary loss of head. From my perspective, death itself is the ultimate indignity. What happens in the minutes leading up to termination or its immediate aftermath is kinda beside the point, and you’re not any less dead if your noggin manages to stay attached.

The way I see it, we want to have it both ways when it comes to state executions. We want to kill people in the service of revenge or justice, but we want to pretend that it’s humane and surgically precise. We don’t want to hear about the twitching and the bodily fluids.

My own views toward the death penalty run in a murky stream somewhere in the middle. I’m definitely not in favor of it, yet I’m not entirely opposed either.

I’ve never accepted the justification that it serves as a deterrent. I doubt that those who commit murder even consider being caught, much less being tried, found guilty, sentenced to death and working through years of appeals before walking the last mile. If they put any thought into it at all, I don’t believe they ever think it will happen to them. People tend to see themselves as smarter and/or luckier than they really are.

That said, I’m not going to lose any sleep over ending the life of someone who we know absolutely, positively, for-damn-sure committed the crimes for which they were convicted. If your name is John Wayne Gacy and you’ve got 28 murdered boys in your crawlspace, then good riddance.

The problem as I see it is that there are far too many times when “beyond a reasonable doubt” equates with “this was the best suspect we could dig up.” Death is the final penalty. There are no take-backsies. So, until and unless we can modify our legal system to eliminate the possibility of convicting the innocent, execution ought to be invoked rarely and only under the most obvious, incontrovertible circumstances. (I’m looking at you again, Gacy.)

Yet, despite being more opposed than not to the death penalty, I take issue with the modern view that it should be clean and free of suffering. Despite our handwringing to the contrary, I don’t believe that this notion has anything to do with being humane. I think it’s there solely for our benefit, to give us our bloody reprisal without getting anything sticky on our hands.

It’s not that I want us to purposely inflict additional torment, but rather that attempting to treat execution as a clinical procedure allows us to take one too many steps back. We become dispassionate, unsullied observers of something that we should never take for granted. We fool ourselves into thinking that it’s okay to kill as long as the head stays on.

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