Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Peculiar Institution -- Discussion Question

#9: As stated on pg 24, "Why is it that at the very last moment, when the much proclaimed sentence is about to be carried, the official strategy suddenly shifts to one of concealment and containment?"

We left off our discussion on this question because it makes an important point on the evolution of the death penalty and how America still uses it. Garland mentions how the American government does everything within it's power to hide the actual act of carrying out the death penalty from the view of the public. Not only do they hide it, but they have completely reversed all aspects of what one thinks of historically as capital punishment. Most people when you think of capital punishment through a historic lens think of hangings, the guillotine, or even the electric chair. Beginning in the 1970's the United States, being the last Western country to use the death penalty, started developing the most "humane" way of killing someone. What it has evolved into is the lethal injection. The lethal injection is everything that the former death penalty is not. It is done in the most private of settings with very minimal observers, medical staff has taken the place of the executioner, and the people who do observe the event are prevented from seeing the actual injection. I find this practice to be a contradiction to the whole concept of the death penalty. I feel that if the government is so ashamed of it why do they continue to use it?
Garland makes a great argument that the reason they conduct the penalty in this manner is to distance themselves from any relation to the history of lynchings in the American South. However there is still several similarities and deep connections to lynchings within the modern use of capital punishment. I will not divulge into those here. Overall, I believe that America continues to carry out capital punishment because it is the will of the people. No matter how ashamed the government may be about it, they act on how the people vote (in regards to capital punishment at least). Not to do so would go against the founding principles of this country, therefore, capital punishment will continue to be used so long as the people support it and the government will do its part to keep it as humane as possible.


  1. While I understand your point that capital punishment isn't going away as long as there continues to be, or seems to be anyway, support for it among the majority of Americans, I wonder if the "humane" nature of modern capital punishment now is actually more of a positive feedback into the idea that capital punishment is both socially and morally acceptable. For instance, maybe if the guillotine or drawing and quartering had continued to be the popular means of capital punishment throughout the 20th century there would a greater desire to end the practice, but now that advocates can tout the "humane" procedure of lethal injection those not already staunchly opposed to the institution may get the impression that it's clean or guilt free, something that won't trouble their own conscious.

    The only similar thing I can really point to is our modern idea of warfare with it's focus on precision weapons and surgical strikes. Drone warfare and cruise missiles make it so easy to distance ourselves from conflict. Have these inventions really just made fighting more acceptable to us or do we just really like war?

  2. Excellent conversation here. I recently read an ACLU study that quoted a number of sources:

    "The latest mode of inflicting the death penalty, enacted into law by more than 30 states, is lethal injection, first used in 1982 in Texas. It is easy to overstate the humaneness and efficacy of this method; one cannot know whether lethal injection is really painless and there is evidence that it is not. As the U.S. Court of Appeals observed, there is "substantial and uncontroverted evidence… that execution by lethal injection poses a serious risk of cruel, protracted death…. Even a slight error in dosage or administration can leave a prisoner conscious but paralyzed while dying, a sentient witness of his or her own asphyxiation." (Chaney v. Heckler, 1983)...Nor does execution by lethal injection always proceed smoothly as planned. Its veneer of decency and subtle analogy with life-saving medical practice no doubt makes killing by lethal injection more acceptable to the public. Journalist Susan Blaustein, reacting to having witnessed an execution in Texas, comments: "The lethal injection method … has turned dying into a still life, thereby enabling the state to kill without anyone involved feeling anything…. Any remaining glimmers of doubt – about whether the man received due process, about his guilt, about our right to take life – cause us to rationalize these deaths with such catchwords as ‘heinous,’ ‘deserved,’ ‘deterrent,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘painless.’ We have perfected the art of institutional killing to the degree that it has deadened our natural, quintessentially human response to death." Although the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the current method of lethal injection used is constitutional, several people have suffered because of this form of execution. Further, the drugs used for lethal injections are no longer manufactured in the United States, so many states are now engaged in back-door deals with other states and foreign businesses to obtain drugs to be used “off-label,” and not for their designed intent. So far, legal challenges against this substitution of lethal drugs have not succeeded in the U.S. courts...Revulsion at the duty to supervise and witness executions is one reason why so many prison wardens – however unsentimental they are about crime and criminals – are opponents of capital punishment...Recently, Allen Ault, former executioner for the State of Georgia, wrote, “The men and women who assist in executions are not psychopaths or sadists. They do their best to perform the impossible and inhumane job with which the state has charged them. Those of us who have participated in executions often suffer something very much like posttraumatic stress. Many turn to alcohol and drugs. For me, those nights that weren’t sleepless were plagued by nightmares.”