Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Bland Semantics of Capital Punishment

Press accounts of the Monday night executions in Arkansas of two convicted murderers are almost universally anodyne.

"Arkansas" ordered the lethal injections, which were then approved by the "courts," whose orders were finally obeyed by "Arkansas" in an utterly passive manner. No human beings, either as individuals or as groups, are made to bear any moral responsibility for the taking of two lives. 

The headlines seemingly come from the same corporate media echo chamber:

Arkansas Executes 2 Men In One Night -- CNN. 

Arkansas Executed Two Men on the Same Gurney -- ThinkProgress.

Arkansas Carries Out First Double Execution Since 2000 -- Reuters.

Arkansas Executions: Why It's Executing 11 People in 7 Days -- Time.

Here's how the New York Times led its own account, which was squeamishly and tastefully buried below several articles on Trump's first hundred days:
 Arkansas executed two convicted murderers on Monday night, the first time in almost 17 years that any state has executed two inmates on the same day, as the state carries out a series of capital punishments before one of its lethal injection drugs expires.
Jack H. Jones Jr. died at 7:20 p.m. local time, and Marcel Williams at 10:33 p.m., both from the injection of a three-drug combination, after a flurry of failed, last-ditch appeals. The executions in the death chamber at the Cummings Unit, a state prison southwest of Pine Bluff, came four days after the state put to death another killer, Ledell Lee. A fourth condemned man, Kenneth Williams, is scheduled to be executed on Thursday.
If you are envisioning a giant map of the state of Arkansas magically coming to life and killing people, then that is just what the unaccountable killers want you to envision. Who held the needle, Fayetteville or Hot Springs? We don't know. All we know is that the men died from some anonymous, passively administered injections.

Further down in the article, however, we learn that "infirmary workers" rather than the legendary hooded executioners were the administrators of the death-dealing drugs. Capital punishment is thus downgraded to a medical procedure carried out by health care personnel.

Since it is impossible to totally avoid naming any names, the Times does finally inform us that one Judge Kristine Baker of the US District Court issued a brief stay of execution for the second inmate, given that the first inmate reportedly "gulped for air" prior to his passive demise. But apparently satisfied that the gulping fell within normal pathological parameters, the judge allowed the second round of injections to proceed as planned.

To give a sentimental gloss to the brutality, we get the standard juicy details of what each man ate for his final meal.  "Arkansas" was humane enough to give them whatever they wanted. Fortunately, unlike the 1992 case in which the brain-damaged Ricky Ray Rector decided to save his dessert "for later" after Governor Bill Clinton gave the final OK for his execution, both men apparently ate every bite of their final repasts, which included Butterfingers and Mountain Dews. Real Southern hospitality was extended by "Arkansas."

Arkansas politicians and their henchmen are on an accelerated execution schedule, given that the companies manufacturing the heavy duty tranquillizers used off-label as chemical homicide agents are now refusing to sell them for such terrible purposes. As a result, the pencil-pushing executioners are in a hurry to use the medication they already have in stock, before it expires. Heaven forbid that they administer an expired drug to their patients. It might have gone stale or even toxic. It might have become too dangerous to use. And that would be so inhumane. 

You have to look far and wide to find any news account which assigns human agency to the executions. Creede Newton at The Intercept breaks out of the mold through his article about the Arkansas medical director being in danger of losing his license for procuring the capital punishment drugs under false therapeutic pretenses. Unfortunately, we are not made privy to Doctor Death's actual name, because "Arkansas" has a law protecting the identities of such people. It's telling that the lawsuit against the good doctor was not filed by any human rights group, but by the pharmaceutical distribution company being asked, by fraudulent means, to provide the drug in question.

Even reporters scoring tickets to the Arkansas executions on Monday night were not truly allowed to witness them. They were given the censored version.  As Jacob Rosenberg writes in his own harrowing account, spectators were barred from viewing the human placement of the IV delivering the drugs. A black curtain separated them from the procedure, and the audio feed was also frequently cut off throughout the death process.
... Even as a witness,  I could not say if Marcel Williams felt pain or what happened during his death by the midazolam three-drug protocol.

The process is designed to feed me details as a viewer that can give me the appearance of peaceful passing.  But this will not have been the experience of Marcel Williams. By the time the potassium chloride, which stops the heart and can be excruciatingly painful, was administered, the protocol ensures that even if the prisoner felt pain I would not see it. The paralytic was in place.
Maybe we should change our exceptional nation's mottoes from E Pluribus Unum and In God We Trust to our own three-drug protocol: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.


Jay–Ottawa said...

There is some debate about the wording of the Sixth Commandment.

//// What! You're starting off with the Sixth Commandment, already? The Decalogue, the Bible and all that? You're going to talk about the Ten Commandments here, on this ungodly site?////

OK, OK, calm down. You folks who pay no attention to the Ten Commandments may be excused. Sorry. Bye.

So few of you left in here …. Anyway, as I started to say, there is some debate about the wording of the Sixth Commandment. A rabbi friend once pointed out to me that the Sixth Commandment does not say "Thou shalt not kill." Properly translated, the old texts say "Thou shalt not murder" or "Thou shalt not commit premeditated murder."

Here's a couple of links I chose at random that get into the weeds on the subject, sometimes stretching the words murder and killing to cover animals as well. The rabbi I knew and many other people who dwell on such distinctions often come away as a vegetarians.



But I'm limiting myself to the killing or murder of humans, not edible animals. According to the Just War crowd, there is a time to kill other humans––provided you do it justly (cough). Need I invoke the argument from authority? The Pentagon agrees. So do most mainline religious persuasions. So would just about every nation state represented in the United Nations. Killing has it's place among the living.

The scribes who transcribed the tablets that came down from Mount Sinai were sophisticated chaps who were aware of all these exceptions to not killing, so they made sure to put down the key word of the Sixth Commandment as 'murder,' not the everyday killing we all accept as normal part of life.

Somebody bumps you in a bar, you punch him out, but his buddy knifes you good. You're off to the morgue. No problem, it was self-defense in the heat of the moment, too much firewater all around, a good lawyer will get the killer off. Because neither you nor the people who killed you set out with a plot to murder anybody. The premeditated part. See the difference?

However, states killing people subdued and caged for years just may be more than simple killing, not matter how they distance themselves by saying the bad guy was "put to death." Putting someone to death in a death house is a matter of planning; the number people involved and all that linkage changes nothing in the deed itself; no heat of the moment involved; self-dense at this remove is called vengeance and is carried out, not by the injured party, but by a third or fourth anonymous hand, at best; and adherence to some other principle like the Talionic Law is quaint whether in the Amazonian bush or Times Square. As for the deterrence claim, it's been disproved by social scientists and statisticians many times over.

Understanding all that, it seems to me newspapers––at least those in states where there is no capital punishment, like the NYTimes––should plainly report the next ritualistic snuffing out of a helpless convict strapped to a gurney as "This morning, Arkansas, in the teachable moment of 03:17 hours CDT with witnesses more or less present behind a curtain, murdered a convicted murderer."

None of us are off the hook on this official murdering is acceptable business. The state motto for Arkansas is "The People Rule." That's pretty much the law of the land across all 50 states. We don't insert the IVs and push the fatal drugs; we just let it happen.

If we can't stop murders by officialdom, maybe we can at very least put a halt to the "bland semantics" that give murder a pass every time as "capital punishment."

stranger in a strange land said...

Thou shalt not kill.

You may not kill people. Not allowed. Departures from this code constitute a crime. War is a crime. State sponsored execution is a crime. LORD knows drone assassination is a crime.

Elizabeth -- Marysville said...

Your blog roll's "The Marshall Project" has an article on one of the men in your post: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/04/27/ledell-lee-never-had-a-chance?ref=hp-1-112#.s18FK02cE

The doctor who ordered the meds SHOULD be held accountable. "First Do No Harm". Most people have heard that phrase. It's one of those Golden Rule cousins.

What is the treatment for cognitive dissonance? I bet Jay would have a good answer for that question. Maybe there is no treatment.