Killing People Is Hard to Do

By LaVonne Neff 04-14-2014

Moose's Last Photo. Photo provided by LaVonne Neff

Twelve years ago we took our beloved Maltese dog, Moose, to the vet and came home without him. Moose was in the late stages of congestive heart failure, and many times each day he was wheezing and crying out in pain. While my daughter held the little dog, the vet gave him a shot. It was over very quickly.

Why don't we treat death row prisoners at least as well as we treat dogs?

"Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths" is the headline on an article in yesterday's New York Times. Back when executioners wielded axes, they tended to wear hoods so people wouldn't recognize them. Nowadays states still conceal executioners' identities — and much more. "In the past year, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee, and other states have expanded the reach of their secrecy laws to include not just the execution drugs used, but even the pharmacies that supply them. These laws," say the authors of the article, "hide the information necessary to determine if the drugs will work as intended and cause death in a humane manner."

Too often they don't.

European drug manufacturers, opposed to capital punishment, have stopped producing the drugs that once killed American prisoners quickly and painlessly (read about it here and here). Americans have tried a number of substitutes, causing a lot of pain in the process.

The problem isn't that it's hard to kill someone without inflicting pain. Our vet could do it. 

But of course he wouldn't. And most of the world's drug manufacturers wouldn't. And of those who would — some American lawmakers, some American prison officials, some American executioners — few want the details made public.

The problem is that killing a fellow human being, even one who has incontrovertibly committed heinous crimes, is a disgusting business. Even for people who favor capital punishment. 

In his newest book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, President Jimmy Carter points out that "the United States is the only country in NATO or North America that still executes its citizens, and Belarus and Suriname are the only exceptions in Europe and South America."

Maybe our aversion to knowing the details about capital punishment is a first step toward joining the rest of the world with a more humane policy. Maybe instead of closing our eyes to what we are doing, we should open our eyes wide — and then stop doing it. If we are too humane to ask veterinarians to kill prisoners painlessly, let's be too humane to kill them at all.

Life in prison is punishment enough. And though it's expensive, it's not nearly as expensive as execution. As Fox News has pointed out, "Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes."

LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and reviews books for various magazines.

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