FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Why Abolishing Capital Punishment is Not Enough

by

After yet another terrifying botched execution, questions about whether the death penalty constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” once again fill the air. Perhaps, though, now may be time to pose even more radical questions about criminal justice.

The particular incident sparking national attention this time was a lethal injection in McAlester, Oklahoma that failed to immediately kill its intended victim. Instead, convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett died — of a heart attack — after 43 minutes spent writhing in pain and struggling to get out the words “Man,” “I’m not,” and “something’s wrong.”

Unsurprisingly, Amnesty International calls it “one of the starkest examples yet of why the death penalty must be abolished.” Even the White House — headquarters of worldwide mass drone assassinations — made a point to publicly state that the execution “fell short” of the standard for humane executions.

We might ask ourselves, though, why we find such a horrible death for such horrible crimes repugnant. If we think punishment should be retributive and proportionate to the crime committed, we ought to welcome particularly cruel punishments for particularly cruel crimes. If we think punishment should serve as a deterrent, we ought to welcome such gruesome, excruciating deaths in hopes that they make crimes like those committed by Lockett less likely.

In fact, we arguably passively accept more cruel punishments already.

As jokes in popular culture reveal, it’s socially understood that a prison sentence involves condemning a convict to a hell of constant abuse from both guards and fellow inmates. This looming threat lasts much longer than the 46 minutes of pain Lockett experienced, leaving permanent psychological damage. Even when sentences end and inmates leave with their bodies, they don’t always escape with their souls.

None of this is to downplay what happened to Lockett in McAlester, especially considering that his time on death row ensured he went through the torture of prison as well.

The problem is not just that what Lockett experienced was cruel and unusual. The problem is that the all too usual practice of punishment itself — the process of intentionally inflicting harm on another human being for the purpose of inflicting harm — is irredeemably cruel.

If this is where punishment has brought us, to systematic killings and mass incarceration, then it’s time to reexamine punishment. We must reflect on what it is we really want out of punishment, and whether or not we can achieve it some other way.

One of the most basic things we want out of punishment is a way to restore respect for victims and their dignity. When a murderer escapes conviction, our anger comes out of solidarity with the victim.

What better way to respond to crime, then, than by demanding restitution for victims or their loved ones? The focus there is placed firmly on showing respect for those harmed, and away from bringing new harm to the criminal.

The most obvious objection to such a proposal is that no amount of monetary compensation will ever bring back the dead, or undo an assault, making full justice impossible under restitution. While this is unfortunately true, it is also true of punishment — even if Lockett had suffered for three hours, his victim would still be just as dead.

The difference is that with a restitutive model of justice, we can at least go some way toward healing the wounds of crime. With a punitive model, no steps are taken in that direction at all and new injustices are committed.

When we look back at the history of criminal justice, most of us mark progress by the abolition of the cross, the rack and the guillotine. We take it as a mark of our humanity that our modern debates about lethal injections are about how we can punish with the least additional pain possible. When we fail in that goal, as Oklahoma did with Lockett, we are repulsed. Those who oppose capital punishment take it as a reason to abandon the practice altogether.

Each of these steps that we praise backs away from the principles used to justify punishment.

When we are disgusted by the unnecessary pain inflicted even on those who’ve inflicted unnecessary pain, we are disgusted with retribution. When we are outraged by the horror of a botched execution, we are outraged by the use of punishment to make an example out of its victims.

It is time to take the final steps on the path we’re already taking.

It is time to abolish the crime of punishment.

Jason Lee Byas is a writer and activist living in Norman, Oklahoma. He is a fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org), a contributor to the independent media outlet Liberty Minded, president of the University of Oklahoma Young Americans for Liberty, a co-founder of the University of Oklahoma Students for a Stateless Society, and a campus coordinator for Students For Liberty.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Obama Said Hillary will Continue His Legacy and Indeed She Will!
Jeffrey St. Clair
She Stoops to Conquer: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Rob Urie
Long Live the Queen of Chaos
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Evolution of Capitalism, Escalation of Imperialism
Margot Kidder
My Fellow Americans: We Are Fools
Phillip Kim et al.
Open Letter to Bernie Sanders from Former Campaign Staffers
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Convention Con
Lewis Evans
Executing Children Won’t Save the Tiger or the Rhino
Vijay Prashad
The Iraq War: a Story of Deceit
Chris Odinet
It Wasn’t Just the Baton Rouge Police Who Killed Alton Sterling
Brian Cloughley
Could Trump be Good for Peace?
Patrick Timmons
Racism, Freedom of Expression and the Prohibition of Guns at Universities in Texas
Gary Leupp
The Coming Crisis in U.S.-Turkey Relations
Pepe Escobar
Is War Inevitable in the South China Sea?
Norman Pollack
Clinton Incorruptible: An Ideological Contrivance
Robert Fantina
The Time for Third Parties is Now!
Andre Vltchek
Like Trump, Hitler Also Liked His “Small People”
Serge Halimi
Provoking Russia
David Rovics
The Republicans and Democrats Have Now Switched Places
Andrew Stewart
Countering The Nader Baiter Mythology
Rev. William Alberts
“Law and Order:” Code words for White Lives Matter Most
Ron Jacobs
Something Besides Politics for Summer’s End
David Swanson
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
Erwan Castel
A Faith that Lifts Barricades: The Ukraine Government Bows and the Ultra-Nationalists are Furious
Steve Horn
Did Industry Ties Lead Democratic Party Platform Committee to Nix Fracking Ban?
Robert Fisk
How to Understand the Beheading of a French Priest
Colin Todhunter
Sugar-Coated Lies: How The Food Lobby Destroys Health In The EU
Franklin Lamb
“Don’t Cry For Us Syria … The Truth is We Shall Never Leave You!”
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
The Artistic Representation of War and Peace, Politics and the Global Crisis
Frederick B. Hudson
Well Fed, Bill?
Harvey Wasserman
NY Times Pushes Nukes While Claiming Renewables Fail to Fight Climate Change
Elliot Sperber
Pseudo-Democracy, Reparations, and Actual Democracy
Uri Avnery
The Orange Man: Trump and the Middle East
Marjorie Cohn
The Content of Trump’s Character
Missy Comley Beattie
Pick Your Poison
Kathleen Wallace
Feel the About Turn
Joseph Grosso
Serving The Grid: Urban Planning in New York
John Repp
Real Cooperation with Nations Is the Best Survival Tactic
Binoy Kampmark
The Scourge of Youth Detention: The Northern Territory, Torture, and Australia’s Detention Disease
Kim Nicolini
Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red In It
Cesar Chelala
Gang Violence Rages Across Central America
Tom H. Hastings
Africa/America
Robert Koehler
Slavery, War and Presidential Politics
Charles R. Larson
Review: B. George’s “The Death of Rex Ndongo”
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail