Executions and Personal Responsibility

I sat at a coffee table eating my evening meal, turned on the TV to see what was happening in the world outside my living room. What was happening, according to the newscaster was what he called the “Gulf War”, into which our nation had been so carefully manipulated. Now I was treated to the view of bombs being launched from both ground and air against an unseen “enemy”, with assurance that the bombs were not aimed at people, but “installations”.

The anchor man launched a slick one right into my heart! My God, what has happened to me? How can I sit here in comfort, devouring nutrition, calmly accepting the bombing of another nation, its land, its property, its people! Have I become so accustomed to violence that I can sit here de-sensitized to the disguise under which violence invades my room! I do not like what is being done to me, and will not accept it!

My grandson invited me to play video games on a computer. I watched as he was challenged to mouse-move and click in rapid succession to blow up virtual buildings and simulated people, one after the other. The game measured his ability to demolish, and totaled his achievement with a score which he was challenged to make better in the next game. When I complained that I did not like the violence he explained that these were not real people, and that usually it was “bad guys” or “monsters” who were being destroyed. He was satisfied that the violence he was being urged to simulate was OK, nothing about which to be alarmed; it was all something happening on a computer screen, and just plain fun. I made clear my own view, indicated that I did not want to play with him, and that when he comes to my house he was not to bring those computer games. Quirky grandpa!

The practice of violence in meaningless computer games prepares a whole new generation to sit before the TV news without ever experiencing the “wake-up” I had, so completely de-sen­sitized that they are immune to a peace-conscience.

Then I read Death in the Dark; Midnight Executions in America, in which John D.Bressler presents historical and present evidence of the ways in which implementation of the death penalty has been effected in numerous ways to distance us from both the gruesome act of killing another human, and from any sense of personal responsibility for executions. It is a piece of the same fabric which trains me to enjoy food while I watch distant bombings, and which teaches my grandson that violence is a way to solve problems and score points that prove he is smart and quick, and immune to the hurt caused for himself or others.

Since a great deal of my life right now is concentrated on keeping my state from reinstituting capital punishment, I want to focus on what Bressler has taught me about the ways in which the increasing resort to executions becomes a way of further insulating our people from any sense of personal responsibility for acts of violence committed in the name of state or nation.

Here are some of the ways in which implementation of the death penalty and the actual executions often become ways of distancing us from personal responsibility for what the state does in our name:

The execution itself is sanitized with careful attention to prevent witnesses from seeing body twitches or facial distortion and disfigurement by placing a hood over the head of the condemned. Lethal injection substitutes for hanging, shooting, electrocution, an attempt to convince the public that this method of execution somehow makes the act itself more justifiable. The attempt to make the act more “humane” reduces the sense of personal responsibility for what is fundamentally inhumane.

The midnight hours are favored times for executions, giving less prominence, with few designated viewers, and in some cases news coverage limited by regulations, all designs to remove the event from view, hidden from the light of day. If we don’t see it, don’t hear much about it, we don’t have the conscience jarred, and personal responsibility sleeps.

Prosecutors can and have argued to persuade members of a jury that they need not be concerned that they are assigning a person to death by finding for the death penalty. There will be appeals, it is said; the jury decision will be reviewed, may be overturned, and the jury’s verdict is only a first step in which others will also share responsibility. The intent is to ameliorate any hesitancy jury members may feel for condemning someone to execution.

Governors have found they can sidestep personal responsibility by appealing to public opinion which demands they act for death, or they can defer to a judicial or jury decision. In at least one case a governor has transferred the responsibility for signing the death warrant to the sentencing judge. The system allows for these elected leaders to be creative in finding ways to distance themselves from the horrible responsibility of causing someone to die.

Legislators and prison wardens have found ways to absolve executioners from personal responsibility: there is a blank in one of the guns, two people activate different injection machines, the executioners are shielded behind a one-way mirror ¾no one will know who is the one who “killed” the condemned person. Anonymity of executioners is carefully protected by law and custom. Each can assume that it was someone else who actually did the killing; the responsibility is shifted to some unknown soul.

Since there is clear evidence both from the past and in present practice that systems have been put into place to protect against any sense of personal responsibility for executions, the obvious question follows: If the act is righteous and good why the reluctance to claim responsibility for the execution itself? While that question begs for an answer, there is the larger, more obvious question about why we even have a death penalty. Let’s get rid of the death penalty, and then we can concentrate on the responsibilities of and for life.