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Time To Break Death Penalty's Twisted Grip On America

The recently botched execution in Oklahoma is the just the latest sign that this 'quaint and cruel' form of American justice is not worthy of a democracy.

The lethal injection room at San Quentin prison in California
The lethal injection room at San Quentin prison in California
Richard Herzinger


BERLIN — The most recent case of a botched U.S. execution — when a condemned man in Oklahoma finally died of a heart attack after 40 minutes of agony — should be a sign for American society that enough is enough.

The death penalty is unworthy of a civilized nation and must simply be abolished.

After a number of other mishaps in applying capital punishment, this atrocious incident demonstrates yet again that the notion of a “humane” execution is a perverted myth. The introduction of lethal injections gives executions the appearance of non-violence by suggesting that it’s a kind of medical procedure being carried out with scientific precision and somehow not the killing of a human being.

The supposedly painless procedure ostensibly turns death into a kind of sterile, clinical abstraction that covers up what is really going on.

Nobody can know exactly the extent of suffering — even when things go according to plan — of a person who is knocked out and paralyzed before the lethal poison is administered. But it is crazy logic to want to spare a condemned criminal pain when the whole principle of capital punishment is based on the idea that murderers should face a similar grim fate as their victims.

But since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that punishment could not be “cruel and unusual,” the American justice system has had to develop execution methods that minimize the pain of the condemned even as the executioners proceed to kill them.

It is not just the act of execution, with all the risks of things going horribly wrong, that is questionable. What’s terrifying is the number of innocent people condemned to death. A recently published study concludes that 4% of capital cases involve innocent people.

The more the American justice system tries to avoid past mistakes — for example, by accommodating a number of appeals and postponement possibilities — the more absurd the entire endeavor. It is not unusual for criminals to sit for years, and in some cases decades, on death row until finally seeing death as a welcome release.

The notion that further perfected scientific methods of proof will eventually prevent the innocent from being wrongly condemned is Utopian. And even if only the guilty were condemned, capital punishment still could not be justified because what it does is put the state and general public on a similar moral plane as murderers: both snuff out human life.

In a higher moral and philosophical sense, it is also questionable whether death is a worse fate than life-long incarceration and a criminal having to face guilt on a constant basis.

Admittedly, eliminating the death penalty would require an enormous paradigm change in many cases. That’s especially true in horrific cases — and for political murders like the Nazi killings of millions in the last century. Yet it’s also true that if Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been sentenced by a court to pay with their lives for what they did, it would never be enough to avenge our outrage.

Quaint and cruel

Some people argue that the death penalty should be reserved for especially extreme cases. But limiting it like that makes no sense, particularly as there are no objective legal criteria for what would constitute extreme. Where the death penalty is concerned, there is a parallel with pregnancy. Just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you can’t be a little bit for or a little bit against capital punishment. There is only to condemn it or accept it.

The United States is the only Western democracy that still clings to this quaint and cruel notion of justice. And even if the percentage of those supporting capital punishment has decreased in recent years, it continues to be supported by a large majority of the American population — by so many people, in fact, that no leading politician dares to question it.

Some defenders of the U.S. point out that Americans have other, historically influenced notions of justice than Europeans do, and that therefore Europeans should cease the patronizing criticism.

But that argument is based in cultural relativism and is comparable to saying that human rights abuses in China should be viewed in the context of the particularities of Chinese civilization and we should therefore “understand” them. The truth of the matter is that universal values — the very values that the U.S. stands for in the world — are indivisible.

Those who feel sympathy for American democracy and charisma should therefore speak out, loudly, making no bones about the fact that the death penalty is a huge blot on the country. In that sense, the measures the EU has taken to forbid European companies from delivering drugs used in lethal injections are entirely justified.

It’s worth adding that any global demand for the U.S. to abolish the death penalty forthwith is not realistic. Under American law, the decision must be made by the individual states, not the federal government in Washington. And the political realities look very different from state to state.

In 18 of 50 states and in the District of Columbia, the death penalty has already been abolished or suspended. Since 2009, it has also been eliminated in three more states, though sentences handed down before the change are still due to be carried out. In the states that still have the death penalty, the number of those executed varies widely. Overall, though, a tendency to question the death penalty is making itself felt in American society.

It is thankfully not inscribed indelibly in the American mentality.

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A mural of a woman's face in Naples

Oriel Mizrahi/Unsplash
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