A French Suggestion


In a news day ranging from Oprah Winfrey putting in a bid to buy the Clippers to the south east of our country enjoying weather straight out of a Roland Emmerich movie it’s the story out of Oklahoma that gives me most pause. In case you missed it, it’s the gruesome tale of a botched intravenous line which turned a new lethal injection drug into cruel and unusual punishment.

I love this country but man do we like killing guys. To be more accurate we like killing mostly black guys aged between 18 and 30 in a handful of God fearing flyover states. The guy who was incompetently poisoned yesterday (until a massive heart attack finished him off) was guilty of a horrible crime…as was the other guy whose sentence was delayed while the powers that be went back to their lethal drawing board. It’s an apparently irrefutable fact that the guys on the gurney yesterday are best monsters who had it coming…but at what point does a civilized society say enough?

Part of the problem is that the preferred source of the lethal cocktail is no longer available it was manufactured in Switzerland and the manufacturers were unable to assure Swiss authorities that it would not be used to kill people so they quit making it forcing the prison authorities to the lethal equivalent of making it up as they go along.

Where I come from back in the day we used to hang folks for pretty much anything….we also used to burn cats alive for entertainment (I kid you not) and bait bears. As our society “matured” we still hung ’em high but on a declining basis. The last people to go to the noose in the UK were executed in 1964. Even then the public appetite for hanging was waning and the pretty clear mistaken execution of James Hanratty in 1962 set the path towards abolition. Most other European countries followed suit although France was still using the guillotine as late as 1977…the French are famously fond of tradition and never believe in changing a winning solution to a problem.

Clearly a good handful of US states are keen to maintain the death penalty in spite of the fact that it offers no proven deterrence, is heavily skewed towards poor young men of color, it’s becoming more and more difficult to do in a clean “humane” way and fairly often kills the wrong people. If we are determined to keep the death penalty because we see it as divine retribution (or some such) and the rest of the civilized world is making it hard or impossible for us to get hold of the drugs needed for us to do it quietly behind closed venetian blinds maybe we should take a different approach.

Old Sparky is still on the agenda in some states but rather than risk slowly frying the condemned alive I was thinking that we might want to take a leaf out of the French play book. Back in revolutionary France there were real concerns about the spectacle of poor folks being bludgeoned to death on the wheel or unceremoniously hacked to bits by an often drunk axe man when the rich and nefarious were given a swift death with a single blow from a sober swordsman. Dr. Guillotine proposed a mechanized clean death to be delivered to all offenders regardless of their rank or privilege. It was a huge success. The technology was still working back in 1977 and no pesky Swiss government will be able to stop us from carrying it out our beloved executions. We could even sell tickets. If that sounds absurd…why does it? It’s a clean reliable instant death…if we are going to kill hundreds of young men each year let’s at least do it in a humane reliable way…vive la France!

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