Guillotine Revival Movement Gains Momentum

When things began to go terribly wrong with Clayton Lockett's execution in Oklahoma the other day—when instead of drifting gently off into unconsciousness and death, Lockett began to moan and buck on the gurney—one of the first things the officials did was lower the blinds over the window through which observers peered into the death chamber. Because after all, people shouldn't have to witness a man suffer as the state is killing him, right?

Lockett's execution was hardly the first botched one we've had, particularly with lethal injection, a process prison officials seem extraordinarily incompetent at implementing properly. But for whatever reason, it has brought about a more substantial debate about the death penalty than we've had in some time. And as part of that, it looks like my semi-serious advocacy for the return of the guillotine is finally gaining momentum. It already has endorsements from Conor Friedersdorf and Sonny Bunch, with more sure to follow.

Frankly, I've never bought the argument that the death penalty violates the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." Unusual, maybe—it has become not just unusual but unheard of in democratic countries (the nations with the highest number of executions last year were, in order, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. of A.). But cruel? It seems that spending your life in prison is far worse than being executed. Though Lockett was in obvious pain for three-quarters of an hour before he finally expired, that pain couldn't possibly match the extended agony endured by the tens of thousands of people we put in solitary confinement, where the lack of human contact literally drives them insane.

But back to our execution methods. It does seem that as the killing techniques have evolved, what we've called more "humane" methods are not about minimizing the suffering of the condemned, but about minimizing the gruesomeness of the spectacle, so that we can perform the execution without feeling like barbarians. It's not about them, it's about us. We did away with the firing squad in favor of the electric chair, even though the latter involves a lot more suffering, and why? Well, it involves just pulling a switch instead of actually pulling a trigger and sending a bullet hurtling toward a man's heart. And there's no blood splatter on the walls.

But the electric chair is pretty awful to watch—the body convulsing in obvious torment and all that—so we went to lethal injection. And despite the fact that we're perfectly capable of knocking people out before surgery and gently putting a beloved pet to sleep, the geniuses who run our prisons can't seem to do it without putting the condemned through substantial pain.

So if you recoil from the idea of the guillotine, ask yourself why. It's fast, foolproof, and essentially painless. If you were going to be executed, wouldn't it be near the top of your list for ways to go? You can't argue that Clayton Lockett would have met a crueler end had his head been lopped off than what he actually went through. We could even come up with a more contemporary version, like a fast-moving saw blade that separates your brain from your body in a fraction of a second.

The visceral objection you have to that thought is not about the suffering of the one being executed, it's about how you'd feel watching it. The guillotine, with its blood and severed head, would make us feel uncomfortable about what we're doing when the state executes someone in our name. It would make us feel barbaric. As well it should.

If we're going to keep the death penalty, we should be honest about what it's for. It isn't for deterrence, and it isn't for justice. It's for vengeance. We can try to make it "humane," and we can draw the blinds when the truth of it comes uncomfortably close the surface. But that won't change what it is. 

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