On March 23, Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation that will make the firing squad a legal method of execution in Utah. The state faces the same problem that is challenging other death penalty states, the difficulty of obtaining the drugs required for lethal injection.
The shortage of drugs such as sodium thiopental, an anesthetic often used for lethal injection, stems from a 2011 export ban by the European Union. The United States is the only western country that still imposes the death penalty, and European drug manufacturers are reluctant to have their drugs put to that use.
Complicating matters, last month the American Pharmacists Association and the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists voted to oppose participation by their members in any phase of lethal injection, positions that will make American specialty pharmacists less likely to supply lethal drugs.
So death penalty states are looking for other ways to execute criminals. One wouldn’t think that this would present much of a problem. Few practices have benefited more from humanity’s innate creativity than the ways in which we put each other to death.
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But for the most part, states are considering methods from our recent history – hanging, electric chair, gas chamber – before concerns about the brutality of these methods began to move states toward lethal injection in the 1980s.
Lethal injection seems more humane and dignified, but as states ran short of traditional lethal drugs, they began to experiment with other drug combinations, with unseemly results.
Clayton Lockett is a good example. Reportedly, he tried to commit suicide before his execution in Oklahoma last year, and he had to be subdued with a Taser before he could be restrained on the death gurney. Prison staff had trouble finding a suitable vein and after multiple attempts they cut into Lockett’s groin to insert a needle. The warden called the scene “a bloody mess.”
Then things got ugly. Lockett groaned and writhed against his restraints for 43 minutes before he was finally pronounced dead, reportedly of a heart attack. Nothing humane or dignified about this execution.
So maybe Paul Ray has a point. He’s the Utah state representative who sponsored the bill authorizing the use of the firing squad when lethal injection drugs aren’t available. He claims that five trained marksmen, aiming for the heart, could kill a criminal much more quickly and humanely than lethal injection can.
The firing squad embodies certain logic, as well. Guns are a primary icon of American culture; they’re an essential source of entertainment in our media, and we use them for recreation, self-defense (occasionally) and for crime (often).
In fact, 70 percent of murders are committed with guns. Using the firing squad to do away with murderers would represent a practical and satisfying application of Matthew 26:52: “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”
But for a Christian nation, we have a habit of cherry picking scriptures to serve our purposes. Jesus wasn’t nearly as fond of “an eye for an eye” as we are. In fact, he said, “Let him that is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Go figure.
Did Clayton Lockett deserve whatever torment he endured when he was executed? Probably. He was convicted of rape, kidnapping and murder; he killed his victim by burying her alive.
The problem is that the momentum of decency and civilization pulls in one direction, and the natural desire to give evil people what they actually deserve pulls in the other.
We’re never going to be able to reconcile the rough justice of “an eye for an eye” with the long hard slog away from savagery. Accepting the firing squad is a setback. Not far beyond the firing squad are hanging and beheading. Before long we’re stoning and burning people alive.
It’s easy to forget that how we punish our worst offenders has little to do with who they are, and everything to do with who we are.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.