Capital Punishment in a Smoke-Free Environment

The third-century historiographer Diogenes Laertius compiled short biographies of ancient thinkers, in which he idiosyncratically focused on just two things about them: their ideas, and the manner of their deaths. For him, the way in which one dies must be interpreted as a reflection of the way he has lived.

This might seem strange today. We tend to think that there could be nothing less continuous with our lives than our deaths. We do great things, we love and fight, only to find our prostate, say, irrelevantly announcing its malignity at an hour of its choosing. Sometimes, though, how a person dies clearly is relevant to our effort to understand who they were. Old Vikings, who had by blind luck made it through decades of battle, would arrange for a comrade to cut their heads off, rather than endure the shame of dying in bed. And we infer from this that they were valorous. In other cases, even where the death is far from poetically just, it can teach us a valuable lesson. To learn, for example, that the esteemed Dr. Atkins died after slipping on ice forces us to see his most valuable contribution to the world in a different light: however soundly you may eat, you may still be taken out by something stupid, at any time. And a moral lesson is learned: don’t look to a diet, or anything for that matter that’s in your power to control or prevent, as a source of salvation. Diogenes was on to something after all.

And perhaps it is in just such a third-century spirit that Roberto Arguelles and Troy Michael Kell, two confessed murderers scheduled for execution in Utah, last May requested that the state arrange for death by firing-squad. Utah is one of the few states to keep this option open, and one of the few to allow death-row inmates a choice at all. Perhaps these men wish to die in keeping with the way they have lived. What could be more appropriate?

Yet the state is embarrassed. Why? As Utah representative Sheryl Allen says of the practice, “it’s a magnet for a lot of undesirable attention. It carries negative connotations of the old west if you will. Other methods of execution, while people absolutely do not, may not support capital punishment, they don’t seem to attract the attention like a firing squad.” And as the Salt Lake Tribune opined on October 2, 2003, “The so-called Wild- West aspect of a shooting death attracts scores of journalists from around the world to Utah, members said, while focusing undue attention and undeserved sympathy on the condemned killer.”

In an earlier article (January 19, 2004), I suggested that the current system of punishment in America is in a strange and paradoxical bind: society has some sense that punishment should be unpleasant, yet we are forced to temper the urge to punish by an earlier era’s commitment to human rights, and to the optimistic and utopian goal of correcting whatever ails the deviant. We long to punish, but can only do so at present within the bounds of civility and, however empirically unsubstantiated, under the banner of correction.

Interestingly, the same paradox binds our society even in its approach to that ultimate punishment, execution. We may kill, but we mustn’t hurt.

It is curious that every generation exhibits shock, feigned or genuine, at the way in which those before them went about their human sacrifices. Famously, the guillotine was devised for purportedly humanitarian ends; those responsible for the Jacobin Terror could go about their business with clear consciences, since, in their scientific and enlightened age, humanity had finally devised a way of executing, so it was reported, without pain. But still, the sight of blood suggested all sorts of unwanted affinities to actual violence, and the Terror went down in history as, in a word, terrible.

Hanging seemed a clean and simple solution, no blood, no screams. But still, who in our America, today’s America, has not seen the cinematic depiction of a hanging and recoiled with horror at how barbaric they were in communist Poland (Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue 5), in the U. S. of the early 1960s (Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark), or out on the wild frontier (any number of spaghetti westerns)? Von Trier has boldly quipped that, however opposed he is to capital punishment, he can’t help but admit that executions are God’s gift to directors. They provide the viewer a convenient occasion for intense empathy. In the case of poor Bjork’s hanging, in particular, in the curious antiquatedness of the whole apparatus and the vintage dress of the spectators, we are invited to empathize without worrying that this obscenity might be anything more than a period piece. Certainly, we comfort ourselves, there may still be capital punishment, but we don’t chop off people’s heads, and we don’t hang people by the neck until dead. Whatever we do _and please don’t let us hear the details–we go to great lengths to ensure that cruelty and unusualness are avoided, that the execution proceeds in accord with contemporary standards of decency.

Until very recently, at the Website of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, we were invited to learn what executed prisoners for the past several years had requested as their last meals. Fried okra, macaroni and cheese, a six-pack of Mr. Pibb. Comfort food, as they say. We also learned from the site of those cases where the state had been unable to fulfill the requests. For example, demands for cigarettes are routinely turned down, since, we learn, this product is prohibited by the Department. The state, evidently, cares enough to ensure that its death-row inmates are kept safe from the deleterious effects of tobacco.

Anybody who has ever yearned for a cigarette, and felt the relief that comes with taking a deep and drawn-out drag, will affirm that there’s something eternal about the moment. Though it may be taking time away from the end of my life, for now at least it is liberating me from time altogether. It is in this sense that, as Richard Klein says, cigarettes are sublime. Likely, such an understanding of the cigarette’s power was behind the ritual, in less hypocritical days, of offering a final smoke to the condemned. In spite of his inevitable fate in the temporal order of things, the cigarette and its moment of eternity offered the closest thing the prisoner was going to get to a way out.

I hate capital punishment. It’s revolting, and I’m kept awake at night knowing that it’s going on. But I hate so much more the knowledge that a condemned man is denied his right to smoke, in order that his executioners may pretend that what is taking place is a normal part of the smooth and sterile procedure-following of a healthy and modern institution. If it’s going to happen, blood needs to splatter, the heavens might do their part by trembling a bit, and all those complicit deserve at least a bit of second- hand smoke in their eyes.

Justin E. H. Smith teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He can be reached at: