I like to think that every politically-minded person has one particular issue on which they stake out a crazy, far-out position that stands as a clear outlier compared to their myriad other beliefs. For some, it’s guns. For others, abortion. But for me, it’s the death penalty. I call myself a pragmatist when it comes to most issues, but when it comes to capital punishment, I take about as hard a line as one possibly can. I am completely and unequivocally opposed to allowing our government to take the lives of any of its citizens.
This, in essence, is the heart of my objection: I believe that there is no right more fundamental than the right to live. No one—not you, not I, not our parents, and certainly not the government—has the right to decide that someone is no longer allowed to live. Naturally, that philosophical slant keeps me from trying to sympathize with murderers, and that’s not what I’m trying to do here. I’m simply saying that there is no type of harm or evil that, once propagated, allows someone to strip the perpetrator of their right to be alive. No one on Earth has moral authority of that magnitude. We aren’t living in Biblical times, after all. I’d like to think that over the course of the last several thousand years, the human race has evolved beyond the sort of eye-for-an-eye barbarism that leads to executions. And all of that is to say nothing of the innocent people who have died because of this archaic practice.
Granted, the United States is not alone in practicing capital punishment. While many countries have laws allowing capital punishment, relatively few of them actually carry them out in practice. In 2012, the United States was joined by China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading executioners. From a human rights standpoint, that’s not exactly the best bunch to be hanging with.
So, you may ask, why am I talking about the death penalty this week? Well, in case you haven’t heard, the United States experienced its third high-profile botched execution last week, when Arizona resident Joseph Rudolph Wood died one hour and 57 minutes after being injected with lethal drugs in an execution chamber. According to a reporter present at the execution, Wood started “gasping shortly after a sedative and a pain killer were injected into his veins.” Politico reports that “[h]e gasped more than 600 times over the next hour and 40 minutes.”
There are, of course, differing reports as to what exactly happened that day. While Wood’s lawyers insist that he was “gasping and snorting for more than an hour,” the team who conducted the execution deny that Wood was in any kind of discomfort and was comfortably sedated. The family of the woman whom Wood was accused of murdering were also less than sympathetic, and understandably so. Naturally, all of these accounts need to be taken with a grain of salt. But the fact of the matter is that it took this man nearly two hours to die. Nobody is disputing that.
The Arizona execution comes on the heels of two others earlier this year that inspired similar controversy. In January, an Ohio man accused of raping and murdering a pregnant woman died after gasping and snorting on the execution bed for 26 minutes. That execution team used the same drugs that were used in Arizona. A few months later, an Oklahoma man accused of murdering a 19-year-old with a sawed-off shotgun was the subject of yet another botch. After the IV technicians struggled to find suitable veins in his arms, they inserted a single IV of lethal drugs into his groin. The drugs were determined to be working improperly after about 40 minutes, and the technicians halted the execution. He died a few minutes later from a heart attack.
That all sounds pretty unsavory, doesn’t it? Well, that’s largely because these three incidents were examples of government employees killing United States citizens. It’s kind of difficult to take the gruesomeness out of a death, as the friends and families of those murderers’ victims know all too well. And to be perfectly fair, I don’t blame them at all for not caring if their friends’ murderers suffered a little bit before they died. Grief is a terrible, all-consuming emotion that leads people to think and act irrationally. It’s perfectly natural to want to hurt the people who have hurt you most. But that doesn’t make it right. And, quite simply, when it comes to capital punishment, the United States is wrong.
In the aftermath of the Arizona execution, U.S. 9th Circuit Court Chief Judge Alex Kozinski advocated bringing back the firing squad as a means of execution. Writing in response to Wood’s lawyers’ appeal for a stay of execution, Kozinski said, “Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and beautiful — like something any one of us might experience in our final moments.” But that’s simply not the case, he says. “[E]xecutions are, in fact, brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should we. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”
And that is the simple truth of it. Although Judge Kozinski is a supporter of the death penalty, his remarks do much to bolster the argument against capital punishment. Every time an execution is carried out, our government commits a murder using the powers we the people have given to it. I think it’s about time we ask ourselves: is that really a power we’re comfortable giving to them?