Thinking Abo Death by Injection Needs Re-Thinking “What I’m saying is that death by injection ‘humanizes’ execution in the wrong way.” By Bill Stott Austin THE MORNING PAPER tells us that two Texans were sentenced yesterday to death by injection. One of them, a 27-year-old man, had robbed, beaten, and murdered a 22year-old woman in Austin. The other, an 18-year-old man, had raped and strangled a 76-year-old nun in Amarillo. Like most Americans, I am not opposed to executing these or other murderers. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have said that. I was a better person then, and I was against capital punishment. I would read articles about executions and wonder how I’d behave if I were the one being executed. Now I wonder how I’d behave if I were the executioner. And I’ve decided I couldn’t kill somebody by injection. This has made me think that no one should, and that execution by injection is wrong philosophically. I ask you to join me in giving the matter some thought before it’s too late. A little history. The state of Texas hasn’t executed anybody since 1964. There have been no executions here, and for a long time there were none in other states, because the federal courts held that the death penalty was being used capriciously and with racial bias. Under guidelines suggested by federal court decisions, state legislatures have drawn up fairer laws for sentencing people to death. The courts are now regularly permitting executions to go ahead. Bill Stott teaches at UT-Austin. Shortly after the Texas legislature revised state law on capital punishment, it instituted, in 1977, death by “intravenous injection of a substance or substances in a lethal quantity sufficient to cause death” as the means of execution. Death by injection was chosen because it was more humane that the other means considered. Several other states have also adopted death by injection. So far, though, nobody has been executed this way. It won’t be long. Texas alone has nearly 150 people on Death Row. The problem with execution by injection, I suggest, is that it sets up the wrong relationship between the executioner and the condemned person. The executioner does his terrible work not as an individual but for all of us, the people of a state who condemn a murderer to death. What the executioner does must be as impersonal as possible. That is why the executioner’s identity is concealed. That is also why the executioner in modern times has shot or hanged or electrocuted or gassed the condemned person. These methods of killing set the executioner at a remove. He does not kill with his bare hands. Instead, he pulls a trigger or throws a trap door or turns a switch, and dumb instruments collaborate with the laws of physics to do the deed. The executioner kills but impersonally and with some indirection. Death by injection changes this. Now the executioner must put his hands upon the murderer’s hands and arms at the moment of killing to insert the needle. This is a hideous parody of brotherhood \(“Give me your hand,” says Kent to Lear, meaning to help him from the I am surprised, in this regard, that doctors and nurses haven’t spoken out against execution by injection since it perverts the gestures of therapy and reinforces the fears many people have about injecExecution by injection puts the condemned person and the executioner together, side by side, at the moment of killing, and this is also wrong. At the moment of killing, the condemned person should be alone, and the executioner back with us the public, who are as one with him. In condemning a murderer to death, the state, through its representatives, says in effect: “When you murdered someone, you forfeited the right to live among us. We the people of this state have therefore decided to cast you out from among us.” And that is what the execution means to do: set the murderer apart from the community, thus reinforcing the ties and prohibitions that bind the community together. What I’m saying is that death by injection “humanizes” execution in the wrong way. It blurs the line between the murderer and the community by making one of us, the executioner, too close a companion to the killer and too close an accomplice to his death. The right way to humanize execution is by making it relatively painless for the condemned person through the dispensatives. At the moment of death, though, the murderer must be alone, and the rest of us must be shoulder to shoulder against him, appalled at his singular fate. 18 NOVEMBER 12, 1982
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