Comment of the Day: “Clayton Lockett Is Dead, Right? Then 1) Good! and 2) His Execution Wasn’t “Botched””

capital-punishmentThere are well-established group of ethics topics that will always cause spirited debates here, because they are issues that have always divided public opinion and always will: morality vs ethics, drug legalization, abortion, war, social justice, socialism, plus various controversies involving race, sexuality and gender. I try to wade into these only when a current even beckons, as to some extent the arguments are futile and familiar, and too many people refuse to think or listen anymore, retreating to slogans and reflex positions articulated by others.

I decided to wade into one of the most polarized, of these, capital punishment, when the Clayton Lockett execution in Oklahoma sparked a national debate that seemed strange to me, and indeed driven by the unwarranted assumption, uncritically accepted by the news media, that the painlessness of executions were a crucial feature of making them ethical as well as societally palatable. It also opened the question of whether one execution that doesn’t follow the script necessarily calls capital punishment itself into question. I confess: both in my post’s title and in the tone of my responses to anti-death penalty commentators, I intentionally sought to roil the waters of debate, and was determined not to allow the nice people who usually express compassion for the pain and suffering of humanity’s worst and deadliest escape with the usual pieties.

Sure enough, this annoyed the heck out of some readers. Responding to the emphatic objections of one, Isaac delivered a personal and powerful rebuttal. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post Clayton Lockett Is Dead, Right? Then 1) Good! and 2) His Execution Wasn’t “Botched:”

I have deep personal feelings about this topic. Before explaining why, I’d like to point out a few highlights from Luke’s arguments:

“…at least for the time being I’m going to be steering clear of the blog. I can’t even begin to understand the logic at play here, other than that it’s easiest to countenance the death penalty once you’ve convinced yourself that the condemned is subhuman and deserving of no pity and compassion…Whatever helps you sleep at night I guess.”

“…he died. In agony. And you just shrug? Abhorrent. Dispicable. That this doesn’t stun you and make you sick to your stomach makes me question your very sanity.”

“And fuck you for saying my values are misaligned because I despise the notion of ANYONE dying in writhing agony.”

These are not reasoned arguments, nor are they truly compassionate. They are (although Luke may not recognize them as such) pure self-glorification. An almost transparent attempt to convince oneself that he/she lives permanently on the moral high ground, above the inhumane masses. This line of thinking stems from the innate human desire to believe oneself good and noble. It’s a substitute morality for people who don’t want to make the sacrifices and commitments necessary to actually be compassionate and well-reasoned. It’s on par with one-upping everyone else’s love for animals by trumpeting to the world that you believe eating meat is evil.

Not long ago my sister was murdered by her boyfriend. She had tried to break up with him; he snapped and assaulted her. Then he decided that he didn’t want to live with the public shame of being a rapist…so he decided to kill her.

Since the death penalty is, in practicality, non-existent in California, it’s quite possible that this murderer weighed the risks in his mind. If his rape was discovered, the rest of his life would be miserable and he would probably go to jail for a while. If he killed her and was caught…he’d go to jail longer, but wouldn’t die, and his life was going to be miserable either way. If he killed her and got away with it…he wins. Did the lack of any kind of real threat poised by the State of California factor into his decision to stab my sister 39 times? I don’t know.

Most of human history is filled with violent acts committed in a rage as retribution for other violent acts. When someone murders a loved one, a natural human reaction is to desire to punish that person appropriately (and deservedly). When you rape and kill a helpless girl, life in prison is not an appropriate punishment; it doesn’t begin to fit the crime. I don’t need to tell you that emotions run high when it’s your daughter, sister, or mother who is a victim of a killer. You want that person appropriately punished. Dead. Not simply because you want personal revenge, but because you cannot fathom the injustice of society protecting the guilty after failing to protect the innocent. And contrary to what a great many buffoons think, it doesn’t make you “no better than he is.” It makes you a functional human, with a working idea of what’s fair, and a concept of the difference between innocent life and guilty.

Society demands justice for truly inhumane acts committed against innocent people. This is the job of the State. Where there is no State, then there is vigilante/Southern/tribal justice, without due process. If the State is present, but is too cowardly to appropriately punish evil, then you have a cruel system rigged in favor of rapists, killers, and swindlers, at the expense of everyone else. People will not stand to live long under such a system. Even when the economy’s good and everyone has free bread and circuses.

There is no logical argument against the death penalty. There are only the most shallow of emotional arguments.

If your argument is that any death at all is too great a tragedy to be a party to, then be aware that the State doesn’t get to play Switzerland; they enforce ethics/morals upon a populace filled with crime and conflict. They either tacitly endorse atrocities against the innocent, or they hurt the guilty. They can’t do neither.

There certainly is no Biblical argument against the death penalty: all of Jesus’ teachings about pacifism concerned our personal conflicts and struggles. In regards to the State’s role, we have this:

“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil..for he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”

The government’s responsibility (if they’re doing their job right) is to leave good people alone, hurt and inconvenience bad guys doing bad things, and make it clear to anyone on the fence that being a bad guy is not a desirable option. If they do that fairly and correctly, the rest of us can trust the system and be assured that we won’t have to take matters into our own hands.

Anti-death penalty opinions are not benign or gentle. They are a slap in the face of victims, an invitation to despair and desperation for anyone who has ever lost a loved one to a hateful act. They are salt in the wounds; reminders that the person who raped your daughter or killed your son will always have more supporters, advocates, and champions then your dead loved one does…because he or she is dead.

17 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Clayton Lockett Is Dead, Right? Then 1) Good! and 2) His Execution Wasn’t “Botched””

  1. Well done.

    But Southern? If southerners weren’t a pop-culturally acceptable group of people upon which to cast stereotypical negative commentary, I might cry “bigot”!

  2. Well I guess I am not functioning on Luke’s exhalted level. It seems to me that some murders do not merit the death penalty, i.e. unpremeditated crimes of passion, impaired capacity, low intelligence and inability to comprehend consequences of murderous actions. Still from what little I know of the Constitution, the founding fathers never meant to equate the imposition of the death penalty with “cruel and unusual punishment”. Isaac, I am very sorry for your and your family’s loss of your sister.

  3. You forgot the other type of person who are squeamish about the death penalty as it currently stands in the USA; people who see no moral issue with it in and of itself, but have no confidence in the current requirements being stringent enough to fully eliminate the possibility convicting the wrong person (at least with prison, the guy has a chance of getting back into society if the state eventually realizes its wrongness, while death is, well, final). True, we could rewrite those restrictions to a higher standard, but until that happens, it’s not completely illogical to be worried giving the state the chance to potentially execute, say, a Zimmerman-esque figure.

    • Wrongful executions are no more problematic for me than wrongful police shootings (like the one that killed Kenneth Chamberlain).

      Could the fact that innocent people ending up on death row be used as an argument against the death penalty? Of course. But by that same rationale, the fact that police (even mistakenly) drew their weapons on unarmed persons could be used to argue that police should never draw their weapons unless the other person shoots first.

      • The difference is one of immediate risk; there’s a world of difference between shooting someone in the split-second it would take for them to possibly kill you or others and killing someone who is already subdued and, statistically speaking, unlikely to escape from the state’s grasp. Also, I suspect armed police come up better on the cost/benefit analysis than the death penalty does in terms of combating crime. It’s also worth noting that at least on paper, there are indeed stringent restrictions on how much force the police can use or threaten in proportion to the situation that yes, do increase the risk to the officers themselves, but with the hoped-for benefit of avoiding more wrongful death situations.

        • Julian, I agree with your application of risk considerations. It appears that Michael and I, relative to you, are more risk-tolerant (or, less risk-averse) regarding carrying-out of the death penalty. In pondering “zero-risk” punishments for crimes, I am reminded of zero-tolerance policies applied to so many other matters, and the corrosive effects of such policies on ethical conduct. I go back to pondering the validity of the concept of “wrongful life” whenever the risk of wrongful death as a result of a state-approved execution is broached. In turn, I go back to the principle that I will admit that I accept on faith – in this context, faith (trust) in the shared value of the Golden Rule amongst my fellow citizens, thus translated and applied: There are some crimes for which any punishment short of the forced deprivation of the perpetrator’s life is no less than a REWARD for the criminal act.

          Rewarding = condoning. So that’s perhaps “zero tolerance” from another direction.

          • Specifically, I’m more cost v. benefit conscious than anything else; while the total amount of wrongful executions is small compared with all the other ways one could wrongfully die (like in a road accident), I think the benefits to humanity as a whole that come from executing criminals are also much smaller compared with, say, letting people drive cars.

            That said, I’m more an opponent of current death penalty implementation than I am of the penalty itself; if the country could write up a super-stringent set of requirements that would require the prosecution’s case provide the level of proof you’d see in the best science and math papers, I’d be at peace with it. I wouldn’t give my life for it (heh), given that its relative benefits compared with life-without-parole seem to be on par with PBS’s, but I wouldn’t argue to get rid of it either.

  4. Well, considering where this society is going with its punishment of racism, it’s high time that a law be passed that bans opposition to capital punishment – with a penalty of death. As for method, jamming a hand grenade into the mouth of the deserving soon-to-be-former member of the society, and promptly detonating it, will do – with a back-up of detonating a couple of sticks of dynamite – within a small, enclosed and isolated room.

  5. This does beg the question of what motivates the leadership (not the rank-and-file) of the capital punishment abolitionist movement.

    Consider the fact that the European Parliament banned life imprisonment without parole.

    consider the fact that Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled life imprisonment unconstitutional.

    Consider the fact that a governer who opposed the death penalty also vetoed a bill that would deny furloughs for prisoners convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, saying that it would “cut the heart out of efforts at inmate rehabilitation”.

    Could it be their motivation to end punishment for crimes, including punishments against rape and murder?

      • Jack, I am not yet persuaded to think that what Michael points out is the cultural trend, at least, not of the culture-at-large, I mean. The culture of political authorities certainly seems to be sliding down that slippery slope of aversion to punishment, such that no crime is worthy of some “unkind” (or “cruel”) level of deprivation or suffering. But I don’t think that culture will ever rot far into the ruled classes, let alone pervade. If anything, the growth in aversion to punishment by political powers seems logical (to their benefit), consistent with their increases in power. Increasingly unaccountable authoritarians cannot resist increasing their abuses, while feeling increasingly entitled to commit abuses at will without having to suffer adverse consequences.

  6. torture should be a very real part of the death penalty for henious crimes. without any pain killers, body parts should be shot off, sliced off and such, while lesser pain inducing methods like burning with blow torches should be enforced on the rest of the body.
    this should be public, on a stage, and televised. i for one would pay top dollar to buy a front row seat for such a spectacle. all TV stations should be forced to cover this live.
    all bleeding hearts should be offered a chance to exchange places with the criminal, or shut the fuck up.
    enough already. they are worse than animals, treat them as such.

    • Ok, I’d exchange places.

      I’d probably break down of course, and for my own sense of propriety would make sure both bladder and bowel were emptied beforehand, as I’d be utterly terrified. I would also hope the process isn”t too protracted, and that my partner and son aren’t watching. Heroic I’m not. As the process was continuing, I’d probably beg for a do-over.

      It would also be a lot easier – though not easy – if I knew the person whose place I was taking was innocent. It shouldn’t in such a matter of principle, but it would. I’m human.

      But yes, if it might stop such barbarity, of course I would. I wouldn’t be the first to do this kind of thing. Happens all the time in warfare,often without the victim being given a choice.

      The question is, for you, would you countenance such a thing happening? If so – exactly how do you differ from the perp?

      “The right to be free of cruel and unusual punishments, like the other guarantees of the Bill of Rights, may not be submitted to vote; it depends on the outcome of no elections. The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.”

      — Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 269 (1972)

      • But a good faith effort at a humane execution that goes wrong (in part because opponents of the process made it more likely that it would so) can not honestly be called cruel and unusual punishment, and I have big issues with “barbarity.”

        To me it is barbarous for society to shrug off a sadistic and wanton murder of an innocent, and treat it as if it is no worse than an armed robbery or massive fraud. Bernie Madoff didn’t kill anyone, but he will be in jail to the end of his days, and should be, because he destroyed lives and organizations. Either Lockett’s punishment has to be worse, and absent torture, the alternative is death, or Madoff’s punishment must be more lenient, which would be an outrage. Opponents of the death penalty refuse to address this most basic problem with their misplaced sympathies.

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