America: Cutting Off Its Head to Spite Its Face

In the aftermath of the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett by lethal injection in Oklahoma, debate over capital punishment led pundits from both sides of the divide to agree on an antiquated solution: bring back the guillotine.

It’s almost unfathomable to think in the 21st century that arguments for the reinstatement of the guillotine still abound. One would think that despite the French Revolution not being the freshest memory in collective human consciousness, any quick reference to the role that the National Razor played during the Terror would be compelling enough to deter even the most ardent supporters of capital punishment. Just think about why the gas chamber hasn’t been called back for operation.

That part of the impetus for this proposal was the result of exposing the gruesome nature of state-sanctioned killing is strange enough, yet things got even stranger when pundits from both sides of the capital punishment divide came to agree that bringing back the guillotine would support their own cause. Like other visceral issues in the American culture wars, you would think that the delayed lethal injection that left Lockett violently convulsing intermittently for 43 minutes before he died of a reported heart attack would uniformly divide the nation. Ideologically speaking, this still appears to be the case. However in policy outcomes, there seems to be some consensus.

In the eyes of those who support the death penalty, the guillotine is a cost-effective and painless means to an end.  The only drawback prohibiting its reinstatement is that Americans have drawn a line in the sand when it comes to state-sanctioned execution, only permitting methods that enact no suffering.  The problem with the guillotine is that society’s measure of suffering appears to be equated with how much blood flows as a result.

As Sonny Bunch, managing editor of The Washington Free Beacon reflected, “Our biggest problem as a society is that we have decided bloodlessness is a suitable stand-in for lack of suffering… But the guillotine really seems to solve everyone’s problems: It was designed to deliver an efficient, quick, and painless death. It performs that task admirably.”

Whilst such a revered endorsement smacks of alarming callousness, the unnerving revelation is how ‘humane’ punishment has become conflated as ‘bloodless’ punishment founded on the shallowness of mass sensibility. Sensibilities are not epistemologically useless, but they are by nature unreflective. That an aversion to blood has favoured lethal injections and electrocutions over say the firing squad gives no rational insight into why these methods have been preferred nor does it go close to answering the central question of whether we as a society should take the lives of citizens who commit heinous crimes.  The only thing that is being decided upon is death done neatly.

It is for this reason that some of those who oppose state-sanctioned murder (their words) supported the return of the guillotine. The thought being that by lifting the veneer from the death penalty, and by having the device demonstrate in no uncertain terms its function in the butchering process, society’s sensibilities would turn against capital punishment. To paraphrase Conor Friedersdorf, a journalist at The Atlantic, as heads start rolling so too will support for the death sentence.  In essence, philosophical theories of justice that turn on principle take a back seat when trying to persuade people on this issue.

If the litmus test for capital punishment is society’s sensibilities, the argument to let the guillotine expose the hard and barbaric finality of death may hold some water.  On the face of it, the paradox of a few brutal deaths to save more lives may not sound that convincing. Yet if society’s sensibilities are determining whether such punishment should be sanctioned by the state, it could be the next policy advocated by some that oppose the death penalty.

Whatever is to occur, I guess we in Australia can count ourselves fortunate that we don’t have to discuss the merits of the guillotine.