The execution chamber is more American than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” than the Pledge of Allegiance, or the democratic process itself. Many countries hold free and fair elections; many claim, too, to be concerned with justice and liberty. Often this is a lie, the pretext for counter-revolution or for overseas war. But in America the lie is so large it swallows every virtue it touches. Liberty falters before a broken system of criminal justice that punishes rather than rehabilitates, that kills. Built for public viewing, the execution chamber conflates justice not only with death but with death as brutal spectacle.
State senators in South Carolina understand what the death penalty is for and what it means to America. Weeks after South Carolina passed a bill that would outlaw most abortions in the state, the Associated Press reports that a bipartisan group of senators added the firing squad to a bill that would give the state’s governor alternatives to lethal injection. (The Senate has approved the bill, but it hasn’t yet been finalized, and the House would have to pass it in order for it to reach the governor’s desk.) The drugs are not always easy to obtain, and as global opinion turns against the death penalty, pharmaceutical companies have become wary of sating the American thirst for blood.
“The death penalty is going to stay the law here for a while. If it is going to remain, it ought to be humane,” state Senator Dick Harpootlian, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, told the AP. Hanging can lead to decapitation, he added, and electrocution burns a person to death. People had the stomach for both, not all that long ago; the electric chair used to be common, and hangings used to be public events. If the average American has become a little more queasy, a little less eager to burn someone alive, this surely has implications for Harpootlian’s definition of humane.
As South Carolina senators try to follow the example set by Utah, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, where firing squads are already in place, they inadvertently prove a great truth about the death penalty. There is no way it can ever be humane. Death by firing squad raises the liberal hackles, but it is faster — and possibly more painless — than death by lethal injection. When the federal government killed William LeCroy last September, the man’s stomach “heaved uncontrollably” for about a minute, the Chicago Tribune reported. In about half of the federal executions carried out in the last months of the Trump presidency, a “distinctive jerking and jolting was visible,” the Tribune continued, a potential sign of painful pulmonary edema. These movements do not appear in the official reports compiled by prison authorities. Take those authorities at their word, and the people they killed simply fell asleep.
Without drugs to medicalize the inhumanity of the procedure, America might have to accept the death penalty for what it is. An execution heals nothing and restores no victim to life. It simply increases the body count associated with a crime. In some cases, it attaches a death toll to crimes that previously had none; in America, we’ve killed people who have never taken a life. To advocates, executions aren’t merely a necessity; they are cause for celebration. When the state of Utah killed Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad in 2010, state corrections issued a commemorative coin to staff who participated in the death. They chose a coin, a spokesman told the Deseret News, because the traditional ribbons no longer felt “modern.”
In its truest heart, America is still the nation of the firing squad. It will remain so as long as the death penalty exists. Content to stand apart from other democratic nations, America grants itself the power of life and death over all, starting with its own people. It invented liberty, and it has nothing left to learn from anyone — not the rest of the world, not the men and women it sacrifices to vengeance. All that’s left is blood.