I was grimly amused to read, “A bungled execution in Oklahoma “fell short of humane standards”, the White House said on Wednesday [30 April], as the state announced an investigation into how a condemned man ended up dying from a heart attack after writhing and thrashing on the gurney” (The Guardian), as if the state murder of people in some sense usually exceeded humane standards.
When we have the situation that arose in Oklahoma regarding the killing of Clayton Lockett, in which the barbarism is mixed with incompetence to a degree which might be termed farcical if it weren’t so tragic, we hit yet another low point. In general, execution by the state has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with retribution.
There has been some handwringing in the social, and other media, as a result. What to do about the death penalty? Is the responsibility of individuals or small groups to effect change?
While it would be nice to know there is truth in the statement attributed to Margaret Mead—“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has”—it seems depressingly the case that it is wishful thinking.
In the UK, at least, changes in legislation which appear to have been brought about by a single individual are in fact driven by the involvement of powerful and influential media, such as the gutter press. This is exemplified by Sara Payne—who is actually described on her Wikipedia entry as a “British media campaigner”—who campaigned successfully for parents to have controlled access to the UK sex offenders register, following the murder of her daughter.
In the UK, no paper (with the possible exception of the Guardian and the Independent) would lend their weight behind a campaign to abolish the death penalty (were that needed here) because too high a proportion of the population actually supports the death penalty and the effect on circulation, in a declining market, would be disastrous.
I am sure all of this is replicated in the US and in other countries.
It would therefore seem to be more appropriate to use an international pressure group. There is no need to set one up, since Amnesty International fits the bill. It may be fruitful to engage in a conversation about whether AI could be more successful, but I have no evidence that they are not doing the most that is possible.
To the extent that there does not appear to be a succession of countries abolishing the death penalty, we must therefore look for a deeper reason for its prevalence among states globally. And that must surely be because:
(1) it suits states just fine to kill off their opponents, whether they bother to create trumped up charges or not
(2) the taste for vengeful retribution is one savoured by many people; it would seem to be a facet of human nature which has to be socialised out of people if it is to be checked.
That requires some sort of pseudo-democratic society, such as that in the UK, in which legislators have sufficient credibility in the population’s eyes that the people will put up with its decisions, even if they don’t agree with it.
But do not doubt how close to the surface it remains and, when coupled with ignorance and stupidity, it can erupt alarmingly, as in this case: “Self-styled vigilantes attacked the home of a hospital paediatrician after apparently confusing her professional title with the word “paedophile”, it emerged yesterday. Dr Yvette Cloete … was forced to flee her house…”.
When a country that affects to call itself civilised—the US—behaves as it did in Oklahoma, is there any hope?