Monday, March 24, 2014

Speaking Up for the Executioners

Posted By on Mon, Mar 24, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Brian Haas has a disturbing story over at The Tennessean about how the state has gotten so very secretive about how it executes people on death row.

Part of what's bothersome is the hypocrisy. You can't decide for yourself that you want to use oxycodone for off-label purposes that go against the wishes of the manufacturer and a pharmacy can't whoop you up some oxycodone to use for your fun, weekend off-label purposes if the manufacturer takes steps to stop you from misusing its products. The State will stop you and that pharmacy as hard as it can.

But if Tennessee wants a drug for off-label purposes, boo hoo hoo, it's so mean to want to know what the drug is, what its side-effects are, and where they're getting it.

The intellectual dishonesty is also pretty damn stunning. From Haas' story:

At a Jan. 3 hearing, Andrew Smith, representing TDOC for the Tennessee Attorney General's Office, argued that secrecy has always gone hand in hand with executions.

"The State's interest in keeping this information protected is well settled. It's codified by statute. It's centuries old," he said, according to a transcript of the hearing. "The process of having executioners wearing hoods at executions has been around since the Middle Ages."

This is such bullshit it's hardly worth pointing out. The difference between keeping secret the identity of the person who executes people is entirely different than keeping secret the method of execution. No inmate had to guess — when he saw the gallows being constructed or the guillotine blade being sharpened or the echo of gunfire from the prison yard — how he was going out.

But the other reason this line of thinking is so appalling is that it glosses over a truth we as a state refuse to acknowledge — it is hard to kill people, even people who deserve it. It's a terrible thing to ask someone to do. The reason executioners wore hoods was to try to provide them with some way to otherwise be a normal person, to draw a line for them between "This is the terrible thing you do" and "Here's your real life."

As we more clearly understand the effects of PTSD, we know that merely changing your uniform doesn't change the heavy burden of taking life. And Haas' story makes clear that the burden of taking a life with these untried drug cocktails is torturing someone to death.

We have plenty of people in our society — thanks to the last almost 15 years of American policy — who can tell you what it does to a person to torture someone to death. It's not good.

The State's insistence on secrecy isn't a continuation of tradition, since it isn't at all about protecting the executioner from the trauma of his job. It's an abomination of that tradition, since it allows the State to make torturers out of Tennesseans and to then force the executioner — due to the secrecy laws — to lie about what he's doing.

We, as a state, have agreed that some people deserve to die at the hand of the State. But, unless we're going to have a six and a half million strong firing squad, we're asking a very small number of human beings to be said "hand of the State." We have the same obligation to those executioners there's always been — to not make them any more monstrous than they have to be, to not make it so they can't do their jobs and still be a part of the world.

Asking someone to put down a person the way we put down a dog — where the person goes to sleep and then stops breathing — is asking them to do something upsetting and strange. But it's an upsetting strange thing that can be lived with. But read Haas' story of men screaming out about their bodies burning or taking a hard ten minutes to die and ask yourself what you think that's doing to the people who are directly responsible for that.

We know you can't torture people to death and come back into society and be okay. Our desire to have legal vengeance has a cost that is mostly hidden from view. Our inability to procure known drugs means that cost is about to be higher and the law will keep us from ever having to face that.

The law, as it now stands, lets us fail the executioners and to never have to know that's what we're doing.

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