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Tortured Logic

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 6/20/2001

During the media orgy in the days and hours before Timothy McVeigh's execution, one sentiment often expressed was that the condemned was not going to suffer enough, that a quiet death by lethal injection didn't begin to fit the horrendous crime of massacring 168 people by bomb. In various newspaper and TV interviews, relatives of the Oklahoma City victims as well citizens unconnected to the tragedy made it clear that they wanted McVeigh not just dead, but horribly dead--tortured, terrorized, humiliated, or degraded in some manner that might crack that remorseless expression of his and begin to repay him for the fear and pain he caused so many people.

Some on both sides of the death-penalty debate might flinch to hear such macabre thoughts expressed so plainly, but we would be wise to pay attention to their almost primal emotional honesty. As historian Garry Wills points out in "The Dramaturgy of Death," a concise, brilliant essay in the June 21 edition of The New York Review of Books, state-sponsored killings have almost always been accompanied by grotesque public rituals that serve to execrate and degrade criminals. For example, a convicted traitor in Elizabethan England would be "stripped, hanged, cut down living, castrated, disemboweled, his heart and viscera thrown in boiling water, decapitated, quartered, and his head exposed on Tower Bridge."

Nietzsche, Wills notes, argued that capital punishment in any given society never arose from "a single or consistent theory of its intent or effect," but instead burst forth from "a tangle of overlapping yet conflicting urges, which would be fitted out with later rationalizations." These urges ranged from revenge, deterrence, and therapy for victims to a "cleansing" of the societal pollution caused by criminals, the agents of angry gods or demonic forces. These rationales may have conflicted with each other on an intellectual level, but they reinforced each other emotionally and had one major thing in common: They all demanded maximum publicity. After all, how can closure, repayment, deterrence, or any of those other intended effects of the punishment occur without society seeing the punishment itself?

Today, "unable to embrace most of the practices of the past," we face a death-penalty dilemma, Wills argues: We "have given up whatever logic there was to the death penalty. . . . We no longer believe in a divine miasma to be purged, or divine guidance to be revealed in survival by ordeal. We have given up the desecration of corpses, killing as a reinforcement of class distinctions, torture, maiming, evisceration, and all the multiple methods used to reduce the criminal to a corpus vile." Without all those justifications for capital punishment, we are left to rely on the two least creditable defenses of it: deterrence and closure.

The deterrence argument has been thoroughly debunked again and again, in studies by both law-enforcement professionals and criminologists, but death-penalty advocates continue to invoke it. The concept of closure has even less real evidence in its favor. "The aim of emotional healing is to bring inflamed emotions of loss back into a manageable relationship with other parts of one's life," Wills writes. "Does that happen when, for many years in most cases, a victim's survivors focus on seeing that someone pays for his or her loss? This tends to reenact the outrage in a person's mind, rather than to transcend it. It prolongs the trauma, delaying and impeding the healing process." Furthermore, "the sterile, anodyne, and bureaucratic procedures of a modern execution can baffle the desire for revenge." Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, told Wills of one man, a murder victim's relative, "who said he wished to see more suffering, and who comes with pro-death demonstrators to all later executions. This is hardly one who has found 'closure.'"

When a previously anti-capital-punishment politician flip-flops amid a bid for higher office, it's clearly a ploy to seem tough on crime. But Wills points to the deeper reasons why the notions of deterrence and closure keep cropping up in public discourse: "We feel that the very existence of a McVeigh is an affront to society, a pollutant in our life, a thing we cannot be clean of without execration. But the politician does not want to be seen ministering to atavistic reactions in their raw state. So he invokes deterrence where it does not apply, or says that humane considerations of the victims' sympathies trumps all other considerations."

The utter bad faith of the deterrence argument is revealed in the way we shrink from the gruesome public rituals of our forebears. A genuine belief in the death penalty's deterrent power would have required the whole nation--and whatever would-be anti-government fanatics who lurk within it--to view McVeigh's execution. "If the real point of executions is to [terrify] other criminals, the Oklahoma families are the least appropriate audience," Wills writes.

In the end, all those crass-sounding people who talked of wishing to see McVeigh tortured were being a lot more consistent than most death-penalty advocates. They were expressing bloody urges for vengeance and redress that have been with us forever and have been acknowledged and articulated in the writings of many of our foundational political thinkers, from Plato to Thomas Jefferson. To achieve the things we are told to expect from the death penalty, we would arguably have to return to the days of public castrations and eviscerations. Is that not reason enough to consider moving in the opposite direction?

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