Killing Them Softly

The ongoing controversy if execution by lethal injection induces a humane and painless death reminds me of a story my late grandmother told me a long time ago. During the Second World War many of her villagers in the former Yugoslavia were executed at the hands of local warlords. One of them, a medical doctor, enjoyed killing his victims by sawing their heads off. Inducing a prolonged and torturous death, he would whisper into the ears of his dying victims as if soothing them, "Do not fear, doctor will do it softly."

Advocates of death penalty are soothing the public opinion by arguing that the inmates killed by lethal injection do not suffer at all. They say that their departure looks more like gentle drifting into a deep sleep. This is achieved, they say, thanks to the administration of a three-part chemical cocktail: The first one inducing sleep, the second one paralyzing the muscles, and the final introducing massive cardiac arrest. Apparently, a person undergoing execution is not aware of the moment of his or her death. According to the comments of the lethal injection proponents, such is a very generous death for those deserving to die anyway.

However, the execution of Clayton Lockett, who died a few days ago in Oklahoma of a heart attack after his execution was "botched," went painfully wrong. His execution was not the first one that turned into a killing séance. The execution of Angle Nieves Diaz in Jacksonville, Florida in December 2006 was probably the most dramatic one among a number of other executions that turned into torturous ordeals. He suffered a slow and agonizing death that lasted for 34 minutes, during which time he remained conscious, but unable to communicate his agony. In the latest case the victim was trying even to talk while being declared unconscious.

I would like to argue that the underlying issue in the case of the lethal injection goes beyond the question of whether our most friendly style of execution measures up to its claims. For it does not make a difference from a moral and spiritual standpoint if execution is performed by crucifixion, drowning, burning at the stake, beheading, electrocution, firing squad, lethal injection or by hugging or kissing. It still remains a forced, involuntary and imposed death: a cruel and ugly thing. Killing anyone softly, whatever the reason, does not upgrade execution to a more benevolent status. The more gently it is administered, the more sinister it becomes, almost resonating the sadistic soothing voice of a Frankenstein doctor from the Balkans, "No worries mate, we'll do it softly!"

Opposing the death penalty in all of its facets should not mean that one denies a government and its institutions the right to punish criminals by applying the full extent of the law against them. There are individuals who have committed the most despicable crimes against another fellow human beings. They must be called to account. But the main question in the pursuit of justice for those who have been cruelly wronged and victimized is not whether we have developed perfectly sophisticated and gentle execution mechanisms. Instead, we should ask if there are ways by which we ought to replace the avenging means of justice with those that are redemptive and restorative.

In societies that take pride in their adherence to the principles of democracy and spiritual rootedness in Christianity, the search for a better way should become a priority. Our understanding of the supremacy of God's revelation through Jesus ought to lead us into understanding that the ultimate inspiring insights to shape our views of death penalty should not be shaped by the ancient "eye-for-an-eye" laws, but rather by the person of Jesus who teaches us to seek justice through the instruments of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

Informed by the character of Jesus that inspires his followers to love "one's neighbor as oneself", and reject sin rather than the sinner, we should begin to see that legalized killing -- even of the most deserving criminals -- is not Jesus' way to appease justice. Death penalty carried out in any manner does not bear a divine stamp, but rather the stamp of the barbarian vengeful killing rituals and tribal reprisals. To keep excusing them on account of the Old Testament practices would today certainly receive Jesus' reproach, "It was because of the hardness of their hearts that Moses allowed them to do so, but because of me you should now know better."

Rather than holding onto the cynical practice of placing inmates sentenced to die on death rows for ten, fifteen, twenty and more years as they wait for their executions, a dignifying and ethically superior way would be to transform all that time, energy and material means into a form of intentional and formative educational punishment -- morally and spiritually redemptive, potentially transformative and prospectively restorative.