Why are we so obsessed with the death penalty?

For a brief and glorious period in the United States, the death penalty was illegal. Between 1972 and 1976, this barbarous and horrific punishment was suspended under Supreme Court mandate — but once it was restored, a number of states quickly started the ball rolling on murdering people in the name of the people yet again. California, Texas, and Florida were three notable offenders, as all three states have massive death rows and apparently considerable appetite for executions.

In the intervening years, approaches to the death penalty in the United States appear to be undergoing a slow but important split. A growing number of states are outlawing it or effectively banning it, amounting to the same thing: Prisoners are not being killed by the government (though summary executions by police on the streets are another matter, and deaths in prison due to neglect are also at issue). Large chunks of the Northeast and upper Midwest do not have the death penalty, illustrating that times are changing, albeit slowly.

Other states are clinging hard to the death penalty, and it’s becoming a particular problem for them due to the supply issues with drugs used in the lethal injection. The supply of the cocktail of drugs used — untested and used off-label for this purpose —  is dwindling, in part because their manufacturers refuse to supply US prisons with the drugs they use to kill people. Some states, like Oklahoma, have attempted to circumvent this with the use of different medications, sometimes to graphic and horrific effect. They’re so determined to enact the death penalty that they’re struggling to find a way to kill people chemically even as the number of drugs they can access dwindles.

Some states are taking things a step further. While the lethal injection has become the gold standard, as it were, for execution in the United States due to the belief that it causes minimal pain and distress (both claims are rather difficult to prove), that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options. The US is, after all, very good at killing people, and it has a long and illustrious history of doing just that. And some states appear to be worried that they may eventually be unable to use the lethal injection, so they want to protect access to execution methods now, rather than scrambling to catch up later — not least, likely, because they want to avoid potential legal tangles associated with changing execution methods. A death row inmate could potentially get miles of appeals out of a shift in methods after sentencing.

Our old friend Oklahoma, for example, just reinstated the gas chamber, on the grounds that should drugs become unavailable, the state would still need a method for murdering inmates. Don’t worry, though, officials said, the method would be perfectly humane, using nitrogen gas to deoxygenate the prisoner’s blood and effectively cause suffocation. Which, by the way, is not a very pleasant death. While prisoners would likely fall asleep, then into a coma, then death, there’s certainly no guarantee that it would be ‘humane.’ There’s a reason many animal shelters have been instructed not to use gas chambers (in their case, CO) for euthanasia of unwanted animals, in favour of less traumatic and potentially more humane methods. If we think gas chambers are unacceptable for slaughtering animals guilty of no crime other than being born and unwanted, why on Earth would we tolerate them as a form of murdering humans under the watchful eye of the state?

Meanwhile, in Nevada, the state has reinstituted the firing squad as an option for death sentences. In theory, the state is currently allowing prisoners to choose this method of execution, but that could shift in the future — should the state run out of execution drugs, for example, it might turn to the firing squad as a primary method. In addition to being unreliable, inhumane, and traumatic for prisoners, it’s also traumatic for executioners — those who turn the knobs at the gas chamber or control the equipment used in lethal injections usually don’t see their subjects, while members of a firing squad must view the condemned in order to aim accurately. Which is not to say that those who participate in other methods of execution doesn’t experience trauma, of course, but there is a stark immediacy to shooting someone that is particularly abhorrent.

Three states still retain hanging as a method of execution. In Washington, New Hampshire, and Delaware, prisoners can be killed using the oldest known method of execution — and one of the most challenging. The deceptive simplicity of hanging is belied by the fact that when performed incorrectly, it chokes or suffocates the condemned, leading to a prolonged, painful, and horrific death at the end of the noose. Since training to kill people is difficult — seeing as it how it involves killing people, which generally isn’t allowed — and executions are uncommon, executioners don’t get very much practice, a recipe for unpleasant death on the gallows.

Why is the United States so obsessed with retaining the death penalty that it goes to horrifically extreme lengths to ensure that one or more execution methods will always be available if needed? The challenges facing the supply of lethal injection drugs almost seem like an easy way out and a smokescreen, an opportunity to give up the death penalty without losing face. However, the insistence on returning to old ways of killing people is a stark indicator of the fact that, at least in some states, the US continues to be highly invested in killing, not compassion, and in a highly penalised method of dealing with crime. The United States remains on a shrinking list of nations who think that killing people in the name of justice is acceptable, and it’s digging in tooth and claw to make sure it stays there.

If you don’t find this disturbing, you should.

Image: Two hangman’s nooses and gallows behind the courthouse in Tombstone, AZ, mlhradio, Flickr