Why We Ever Stopped Using the Gibbet, I’ll Never Understand

I have always found the concept of lethal injection creepy and offensive. There’s something Orwellian about using the instruments of medicine to bring about death. Yes, that’s how we put down animals, but a human is more than just an animal. A human, even one guilty of a capital crime, deserves to suffer death honestly, not as a euphemism.

I assume lethal injection became popular due to its apparent “humanity”, i.e. the lack of suffering comparable to hanging, beheading, or firing squad. But the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday has put the lie to that. Instead of a quiet passing from life to un-life, Locket writhed and clenched and suffered for forty minutes.

Stacy McCain takes the tack of reminding us that Lockett’s execution was still less severe than the group rape, shooting, and burying alive of Stephanie Neimann, for which he received his death sentence. With this, I have no argument. But I am less interested in how much Lockett suffered than in the pretense that execution can be done without suffering.

“Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.

– Genesis 9:6

I am myself something of an agnostic on capital punishment. I am uncertain of its benefits and have doubts about whether the state should be trusted with the taking of life. But I recognize the instinct that says “hang the sonofabitch from the nearest tree”, and I do not judge it. And that’s why lethal injection creeps me out. Execution becomes an elongated series of procedures and steps, done quietly in the dead of night, away from the public eye. In a week, I will have forgotten Clayton Lockett’s name. The state will have lifted him out of the stream of history.

The question of whether he deserves it or not is incidental. If we must execute men in the name of public order and justice, then let us do so openly. Let us do so without pretense, without false solicitousness, without swabbing his arm with alcohol in preparation for a dose of poison. If we’re going to shed his blood, then shed his blood, and let the citizens of the state in whose name that blood is shed be the witnesses.

In conclusion, if we haven’t the stomach to hang murderers in the public square, we shouldn’t be executing them at all.

UPDATE: Kevin Williamson, who has become my favorite writer at National Review, opines much the same:

The fiasco in Oklahoma suggests that maybe we took a wrong turn back in 1792. If we are to have capital punishment, there is something to be said for the old-fashioned methods. The sword is indeed too aristocratic for a republic such as France’s or our own, and our already over-titled public sector does not need a High Executioner. But there is something to be said for the sword, and for the high executioner. Execution is a job for a man, not a machine. The power to take a life is profound, and it must be undertaken with the highest degree of sobriety and responsibility. The intimacy of the sword in the hands of the executioner communicates that power and responsibility much more directly than our own relatively bloodless bureaucracy of death ever could. The plodding American mode of bureaucracy if anything subtracts from the profundity of an execution, being organized around a principle of dehumanization that in a sense makes the actual taking of life anticlimactic, almost — but only almost — beside the point.


2 thoughts on “Why We Ever Stopped Using the Gibbet, I’ll Never Understand

  1. Even hangings could go wrong, and I’ve read of beheadings that were something other than a single swift chop.
    All round the firing squad seems to be the best option if you require capital punishment (I’m ambivalent about it, like you.) Six men with five loaded guns – one empty to provide an element of escape for any conscience stricken shooter. Quick, efficient.

    1. I can’t argue with this.

      But then I’m odd. I think that a great many crimes that are now punished with incarceration would be better served by a public flogging.

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