Call Lethal Injection the Vile Torture It Is

Photo by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation | CC BY 2.0

In a New Year’s Eve display of liberal newspaper death penalty abolition harmony – buoyed by the release of the Death Penalty Information Center’s (DPIC) annual report evidencing another year in the long-observable trend of capital punishment’s disuse and disfavor in America – both the Washington Post and New York Times’s editorial boards published opinion pieces arguing for an end to what the Times called a “cruel and pointless” practice; one that is “savage, racially biased, arbitrary,” and which “the developed world agreed to reject…long ago.”

On her well-followed Twitter account, intrepid anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean opined that the Times “opened the New Year with a bang: a full-throated exhortation against the death penalty. The editorial hit all the right notes.” While I hardly disagree with Sister Helen on anything concerning death penalty abolition – and, despite all the truthful and pointed invectives the Times’s editorial board did skillfully use to highlight capital punishment’s moral depravity – I still preferred when newspaper editors used the word ‘torture’ to describe to the American people what lethal injection really is.

For example, take the column titled “Lethal Cruelty” published by the New York Times’s editorial board over a decade ago, in April 2006: Its final paragraph, a frustrating-beyond-belief marker of the meandering, snail pace of the abolition movement in the United States, concluded: “But even justices who think the Constitution permits capital punishment should find that lethal injections that torture prisoners in the process of killing them are unconstitutional.” (Hello Justices? Hello!? Any Justices at home and awake at the high court? As Martin Luther King, Jr., once judiciously declared: “The time is always right to do what is right,” which the Supreme Court can and should do immediately by “[w]iping the stain of capital punishment clean.”)

It is precisely because of its stinging, far-reaching legal, historical, ethical, and moral implications – especially in the putative “land of the free and home of the brave” – that I respectfully submit it is increasingly more important for anti-death penalty writers to use the word ‘torture,’ as a censure, to describe the barbarity of lethal injection. Other than genocide and atrocity, perhaps no other single-word descriptor is capable of generating the same level of opprobrium, righteous indignation, and negative international press coverage as the word ‘torture.’ A not very humble example is a column I published in the Hill last year, at about this same time, called “Alabama’s torture of Ronald Smith spotlights unequal justice under law.” (Others include an opinion I published a few months later in Alabama’s Montgomery Advertiser – not only about Mr. Smith’s patently botched execution, but about all of Alabama’s volatile executions by lethal injection – called “Is Alabama hiding that it tortured its citizens,” “Alabama’s Human Guinea Pigs: Burning People Alive on Death Row,” and, most recently in the series, “Alabama’s ‘Baghdad Bob’ of Death Row.”)

Nevertheless, notwithstanding my hyper-technical, terminology-centric complaint about this year’s version of the Times’s perennial plea for death penalty abolition, it was a darned sight better than the Washington Post’s overly rosy outlook. Despite leading with the appropriately morose title, “[a]nother year in death,” the Post’s piece irrationally extols the significance of DPIC’s annual report, insipidly informing its readers there is “cause for celebration” because “[n]o matter the reason, it is heartening to see the country become steadily more humane.”

Horse hockey. Each and every year since the death penalty’s reinstatement over forty-five years ago, stern-faced state officials, particularly in the South, regularly trot out, for extra pay, withered, weakened, beaten-down – dying even – old men (and much more rarely, women) to torture them to death. This occurs many years, sometimes even decades, after their crimes of conviction. As I have written elsewhere decrying the “unacceptable racial bias [that] persists in capital punishment”: “[s]ometime soon in the 31 states that have not abolished the death penalty, leaders at the highest levels of state government, men and women – mostly men and mostly white – will hold private, closed-door meetings, in which they will discuss the most secretive, most cost-effective, most media-friendly way to go about killing one, or more of its citizens.”

And there’s nothing – not a damn thing – humane or celebratory about that.

More articles by:

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South