Killing Them Softly

I am not trying to undermine the seriousness of the crime committed by Clayton Lockett, who died in Oklahoma yesterday of a heart attack after his execution was ‘botched’. His execution reminds me of the execution of Angel Nieves Diaz in Jacksonville, Florida seven years ago (December, 2006). At that time I wrote the following article that pretty much addresses the challenges related to the execution of Clayton Lockett too:

The ongoing controversy over whether execution by lethal injection represents a humane and painless death reminds me of a story my late grandmother told me a long time ago. During the Second World War many of her villagers in former Yugoslavia were executed at the hands of local warlords. One of them, a cynical doctor, was known to enjoy killing his victims with a saw. Inducing a prolonged and torturous death by sawing off the head of a victim, he would whisper as if soothing a dying victim: “Do not fear, the doctor will do it softly”.

At this moment, the US Supreme Court is revisiting the issue of whether death penalty by lethal injection is in tune with the US Constitution. Executions across the country, in all of the states, have been temporarily put on hold. Meanwhile, a debate on the character of the penalty, supposed to be the most civilized and dignified form of involuntary euthanasia, is taking place at different levels.

Advocates of this form of death penalty argue that those who are killed by lethal injection do not suffer at all, and that their departure looks more like gentle drifting into a deep sleep. This is achieved, they say, thanks to the administration of a three-part chemical cocktail: the first one inducing sleep, the second one paralyzing the muscles, and the final introducing massive cardiac arrest. Apparently, a person undergoing execution is not at all aware of the moment of his death. According to the comments of its proponents, this is a very kind death for those deserving to die.

However, something went wrong in the execution of Angel Nieves Diaz in Jacksonville, Florida, on December 13, 2006, which called for a quick suspension of all executions in the USA. He seemed to have suffered a slow and agonizing death that lasted for 34 minutes, during which time he remained conscious but unable to communicate his agony. Jonathan Groner, a professor of surgery at the Ohio State Medical School, said that on the basis of the results obtained from the autopsy it is very likely that “he was tortured to death.” Opponents of execution by lethal injection have since argued that execution by lethal injection should be outlawed because it violates the constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment”.

Apparently, in the USA, the death penalty is currently not underinvestigation, but only the method of its administration. Once resolved by the Supreme Court, it is very likely that the executions will continue.

I would like to suggest that the underlying issue in the case of the lethal injection goes beyond the question of whether our most benevolent style of execution measures up to its claims. For it does not make a difference from an ethical, moral and spiritual standpoint whether execution is performed by crucifixion, drowning, burning at the stake, beheading, electrocution, firing squad, lethal injection, or by hugging or kissing. It still remains a forced, involuntary and imposed death: a cruel and ugly thing. Killing anyone softly, whatever the circumstances and reason, does not upgrade execution to a more advanced institution. The more gently it is administered, the more sinister it becomes, almost resonating the sadistic soothing voice of a Frankenstein doctor from the Balkans – “No worries mate, we’ll do it softly!”

Opposing the death penalty in all of its facets should not mean that one denies a government and its institutions of justice, the right to prosecute and punish criminals by pursuing the full measure of the law against them. There are individuals who have committed, and there will be more in the future who will commit, the most despicable criminal acts against another fellow human being, or society in general. They certainly must be called to account. Society needs to be protected from them. But the main question in the pursuit of justice for those who have been cruelly wronged and victimized is not whether we have developed perfectly sophisticated and gentle execution mechanisms. Instead, we should ask if there are better ways by which to replace retributional and avenging justice with those that are redemptive and restorative.

In societies that take pride in their adherence to the principles of democracy and spiritual rootedness in Jesus of Nazareth, the search for a better way should become a priority. Our understanding of the supremacy of God’s revelation through Jesus ought to lead us into understanding that the ultimate inspiring insights to shape our societies should not be the ancient “eye-for-an-eye” practices, but rather Jesus’ humanism that teaches us to seek justice through the instruments of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

These are not abstract spiritual categories regarding the salvation of souls alone, but also the superior and applicable principles needed for the formation of an ever more humane society, should we take Jesus seriously. Enlightened by his character that inspires every follower of Jesus to love his/her neighbor and reject sin rather than the sinner, we should begin to see that legalized killing – even of the most deserving murderer – is not Jesus’ way of appeasing justice, and that the death penalty carried out in any manner still bears the stamp of a barbarian vengeful killings and tribal reprisals which were never of a divine design. And to keep on excusing it on account of Old Testament practices – as if those would make it right – would in our time meet Jesus’ reproach: “It was because of the hardness of their hearts that Moses allowed them to do so, but because of me you should know better.”

Rather than holding onto the cynical practice of placing inmates sentenced to die on death rows for ten, fifteen, twenty and more years as they wait for their execution, a dignifying and ethically superior way would be to transform all that time, energy and material means into a form of intentional and formative educational punishment – morally and spiritually redemptive, potentially transformative and prospectively restorative.

An upgraded version published by The Huffington Post, May 1, 2014  and ABC Religion and Ethics.

About Tihomir Kukolja

Tihomir Kukolja, born in Pozega, Croatia. Studied, lived and worked in Yugoslavia, Croatia, United Kingdom, Australia and the US. Educated in theology, communications, and radio journalism. Worked as a church pastor, media professional, radio producer and presenter, journalist, religious liberty activist, and reconciliation and leadership development activist. Lives in Houston TX, USA. Until recently served as the Executive Director, Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation (Forum), and Director of Renewing Our Minds (ROM) initiative. Loves photography, blogging and social media.
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