Giving full satisfaction to popular sadism always risked undercutting public support, but now politicians feel comfortable calling for a return to harsher methods.
States that kill tell us, in their scientific-technical language, that the death penalty is an unfortunate but strictly necessary activity, always used as a last resort and always restrained by mercy. The precise method of killing is itself a matter of pained, moral exactitude. The question is always how to deter as much brutality as possible, with as little brutality as possible.
So, a question: if you wrap a ligature around someone’s throat and tighten it until it breaks their neck or they choke to death, what is the deterrent effect of this compared with, say, tying them by the neck to a crane and then jerking them violently upward? How many fewer murderers and rapists would there be if we injected convicts with poison, as opposed to gassing or electrocuting them? For if you take states at their word, the sheer variation in both the use and method of the death penalty over time and place necessarily gives rise to such mind-boggling calculations.
For a few decades, this controversy has been moot in the United States. Those states in the union that operated the death penalty had abandoned the traditionally harsher methods of killing, such as electrocution or gassing. The long, agonising deaths associated with these methods had been replaced by superficially serene ones, effected by the seemingly precise method of poisonous injections. Now, as the availability and effectiveness of these drugs is in question, 6 states are attempting to bypass controversy by bringing back the firing squad, the gas chamber or the electric chair.
There are certain ironies here. Electrocution was itself once considered the gentle, civilised method of killing in the US. After centuries of hanging people in public squares, the American state was centralising and consolidating its power. Its ability to contain violent disobedience was expanding dramatically. By and large, it was less threatened by criminal disobedience than by the potential for unruliness among witnesses to such spectacles. It began to use the death penalty less, and in more confined settings, with fewer witnesses.
This did not mean that the element of sadism, which is essential to the social meaning of the death penalty, had been expunged. As a ritual, it effectively harnesses the desire to see satisfaction in pain and humiliation, and as such legitimises the state’s ultimate authority. That is why witness must be made, especially by the grieving relatives of a murder victim, for whom the killing of the convict is apparently the only route to “closure”.