Killing to Show That Killing is Wrong

With straps fastening his body to a gurney, Joseph Wood coughed and snorted as he gasped for breath.

Wood’s execution was supposed to take 10 minutes and require one injection. Instead, he tried and failed more than 600 times to acquire air over the course of about two hours. He was injected over 15 times before he finally died.

Witnesses say Wood looked like a fish on land. Like a piston, his chest would pump while his mouth opened and closed as his body searched for oxygen.

This is torture, and it’s barbaric. It resembles something straight out of a horror film, but it’s a scene from a botched 2014 execution administered by a state in our union. That state, Arizona, hasn’t executed anyone since.

Arizona is also responsible for the last execution by lethal gas in the United States. That one, in which Walter LaGrand was gassed to death in 1999, was botched, too.

Now, Arizona is trying to bring the death penalty back. But with many pharmaceutical companies no longer willing to sell their drugs for the purpose of lethal injection, the state plans to bring back gas executions — this time using the same lethal gas the Nazis used to kill Jewish people during the Holocaust.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, according to a recent Freedom of Information Act request, just purchased a brick of potassium cyanide, along with other chemicals used to create a deadly concoction for their newly “refurbished” gas chamber. The state also purchased $1.5 million worth of pentobarbital, a potent sedative used for lethal injection.

As the rest of the world moves to distance itself from executions, the U.S. continues to stand firm in defense of the practice. According to the federal government, 30 states, and 60 percent of Americans, executions are an acceptable form of punishment.

Growing up in the U.S., the death penalty just felt like a fact of life. You learn about famous death penalty cases in history. You see movies and read books about people who were executed. And it was talked about often enough by family and friends that I thought it was a normal aspect of the administration of justice.

It wasn’t until adulthood when I started to question my acceptance of the death penalty.

I struggled with the fact that redemption and human dignity are values I hold dear. Yet here I was, all too comfortable with my government electrocuting, poisoning, gassing, hanging, and shooting people to death for their crimes, real or alleged.

It troubled me greatly that people of color are sentenced to death at much higher rates than white people who commit the same crimes — which suggests the penalty is about power, not justice. And it shocked me to learn that, according to estimates from the National Academy of Sciences, more than 100 people currently on death row are likely innocent.

Adding to my skepticism was the fact that the U.S. is an outlier on the world stage when it comes to the death penalty. In all of Europe and the Americas, the U.S. and Belarus are the only countries that routinely carry out executions.

At last tally, there are just five countries in the world that execute more of their citizens than the U.S. They are Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China.

None of these countries are considered to have governments granting rights and protections on par with those afforded to U.S. citizens. Yet the U.S. finds itself in their company in violating the most fundamental right of all — the right to life itself.

I believe in accountability, and I believe in justice. What I don’t believe is that the best way to achieve it is to kill people who kill people to show that killing is wrong.

We must do better. We must end the practice of executing people.

Dr. Robert P. Abele is the author of three books: A User’s Guide to the USA PATRIOT Act (2005); The Anatomy of a Deception: A Logical and Ethical Analysis of the Decision to Invade Iraq (2009); and Democracy Gone: A Chronicle of the Last Chapters of the Great American Democratic Experiment (2009). His latest articles on political theory and war will be published in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Global Justice, by Springer Press. His new book is entitled The Self-Conscious, Thinking Subject: A Kantian Contribution to Reestablishing Reason in a Post-Truth Age, and will be released this year. Dr. Abele is an instructor of philosophy at Diablo Valley College, located in the San Francisco Bay area.