The death penalty in crisis

Justin E. H. Smith in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

ScreenHunter_1291 Aug. 05 22.27An honest list of execution devices and methods would include the electric chair, the gas chamber, and the guillotine, but also the brazen bull, drawing and quartering, and suffocation by elephant. The latter were devised to maximize the anguish of the victim, and to elevate the experience of onlookers to the level of sublime spectacle. Edmund Burke had some decades before the French Revolution speculated that typical European theatergoers, in the middle of a gripping tragedy, would, upon hearing of a public execution taking place outside, immediately abandon their tragedians to get a glimpse of the real thing. Human beings are gawkers, particularly at the suffering of others. And yet just as Burke was writing, a transformation was taking place in the way capital punishment was carried out in Europe: It migrated from public squares to prisons, out of sight of ordinary citizens. This migration was part of a broader shift in society’s tolerance for open cruelty; the same era also saw the retreat of animal butchery from open-air markets to the closed space of the abattoir.

Discretion suits our need to think of ourselves as having overcome the cruelty of our ancestors. Yet it is also in tension with the ideal of transparency. Among the few liberal democracies that still make use of the death penalty, there is a basic and likely irresolvable conflict between the modern rejection of death as spectacle and the equally modern imperative for popular oversight of the things a state does in the name of its citizens.

We are witnessing a resurgence of forms of violence that strike us as terribly unmodern, such as ceremonialized beheadings and stonings, often for crimes that can count as crimes only to the extent that a closed community works itself into a fuss about them: apostasy, adultery, and so on. There has also, of course, been an apparent resurgence of nonstate political violence targeting civilians over the past few decades — “terrorism,” we call it, in unconscious allusion to the revolutionary bloodshed in France in the wake of 1789.

More here.