The Death Penalty
I’ve just returned home from an evening vigil at the Meetinghouse, where over a dozen Friends and neighbors gathered at the hour when the Commonwealth of Virginia put multiple murderer Alfredo Prieto to death by lethal injection. I wasn’t moved to speak aloud what follows, but I was moved to think it; and I set it down now for Friends’ consideration.
Public attention to this execution, including a conspicuous but ineffectual last-minute judicial appeal, has been fixated on the immediate means of death: which chemical toxins go into the lethal mix, where they are obtained, with whose approval, and so forth. This engrossing topic is only the latest in a series of humanitarian adjustments that goes back through the electric chair to the firing squad, gallows, and guillotine – and, for all I know, the axe and the cross.
I worry lest this myopic focus on technique may distract us, where state killing is involved, from pondering another aspect of the means of death, one that concerns us more nearly. I mean the legal, institutional apparatus that sustains and administers the death penalty as a way of life in our state and in our country. After a hiatus of many months, this latest execution reminds us that long-deliberated, excruciatingly premeditated state killing is a practice deeply entrenched: a keystone, I increasingly think, of the same edifice of state power that identifies political authority, at the end of the day with the exercise of physical force, and that thus is of a piece with the machinery of war.
The coincidence of Alfredo Prieto’s execution today with yet another lethal shooting rampage at an Oregon college is, in one sense, just coincidental; but it points to a profounder coincidence between the death penalty’s official rehearsal of cold-blooded violence and the encouragement that such a policy must, at some level, lend to the private exercise of armed indignation and vengeance. Our habituation as a society to institutionalized violence is evidently toxic too, and its side effects are lamentably easy to trace.
It is because the death penalty is administered in the name of us all, as citizens of a democracy, that some of us find it so important to bring each execution to mind as firmly as possible. We need to do what we can to make the public aware of what it is actually doing, by delegation and sometimes absent-mindedly, when it decides collectively to kill; and at the same time to make ourselves aware, in the very attempt to stand aside from a practice we abhor, that we remain accomplices until the practice is stopped.
October 2, 2015