Capital punishment in America resembles a mild chronic disease that we’ve learned to live with. Most of the time it resides quietly in semi-remission, though occasionally it flares up enough for us to notice it, but not enough to make us take the cure.
A flare up at the end of April briefly caught our attention. Officials in Arkansas were planning to execute eight men in 11 days, largely because the supply of midazolam, a sedative used as part of Arkansas’ lethal injection protocol, was set to expire at the end of the month. Since the drug’s manufacturers are reluctant to have their product associated with the death penalty, the state could not be certain of resupply.
Even though Americans — by a diminishing margin — still favor capital punishment, we prefer a careful, deliberate application of this most irrevocable of punishments. We’re uncomfortable with the idea of squeezing eight executions in at the end of a month just to beat an expiration date.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted this arbitrary factor in his dissent to the 5-4 decision that allowed the executions to go forward: “In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random.”
Further, Americans are uncomfortable with mass executions, as well. Ordinarily, single executions, spaced over time, are mostly unnoticed, but the idea of eight deaths in 11 days makes some a little queasy.
As it happened, only four of the eight were actually put to death, but Arkansas made news when it executed two of the condemned within three hours on April 24, carrying out the first double execution since 2000.
Our reaction against killing more than one condemned man at a time is emotional rather than logical. But America’s death rows currently house nearly 3,000 inmates. Many states face the same problem obtaining lethal drugs that Arkansas faces. Some states have considered bringing back the firing squad, electric chair or hangman’s noose.
There’s nothing in the current logic of capital punishment in the United States that would prevent it, but most of us would be disgusted by the spectacle of a couple of thousand of the worst of these inmates being bussed to secluded shooting ranges and executed by firing squads on a single day.
Historically, mass executions are common. As recently as last year Saudi Arabia executed 47 during a single day by beheading and hanging. The U.S. hasn’t held such an event since Dec. 26, 1862, when 38 Sioux “Indians and Half-breeds” were hanged on a specially built gallows in Mankato, Minnesota.
Even capital punishment’s strongest proponents might have trouble stomaching a mass execution like this one. Our sensibilities have moved in a better direction.
Which helps explain an anomaly connected to the episode in Arkansas: the state began to run out of people to witness the executions.
Like many other death penalty states, Arkansas requires witnesses who have no connection to the case to be present at executions. The witness shortage for the eight planned executions was serious enough that the director of the Department of Correction made a public appeal to members of the Little Rock Rotary Club.
We haven’t always had this problem. The last public execution, the hanging of Rainey Bethea on August 14, 1936, reportedly drew a crowd of 20,000 people.
After 1936, legislatures began to recoil at the unseemly spectacle of throngs — often picnicking and drinking heavily — showing up for public executions, and they took them out of the public view.
I wonder if this was a good idea. Lethal injection is the culmination of a trend that makes executions less grisly and thus more palatable. We’ve also made them more or less invisible, until something like the Arkansas episode crops up.
I wonder if we would tolerate executions quite so readily if we actually had to watch them. Perhaps we’d soon join the rest of the western world in abolishing this practice, which is thoroughly suited to outmoded cultural sensibilities that accepted slavery, torture, child labor and human sacrifice.
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.