TCS Daily

Reform Follows Function

By Sidney Goldberg - October 8, 2003 12:00 AM

Last Saturday, a New York City police officer was lowered by rope to a window in a Harlem apartment house. Inside the window he could see a 425-pound Bengal tiger, an animal that -- along with an eight-foot caiman, a member of the crocodile family of reptiles -- had been living in the apartment for several months, the "pet" or "companion" of a man named Antoine Yates. The police officer shot a dart into the tiger and, after a few minutes, shot a second dart into him, by which the tiger, Ming, was fully tranquilized and sleeping blissfully.


The policeman then could have shot the tiger with a bullet to its brain, if that had been Police Department policy, but the plan was quite different, and the officer called the appropriate animal welfare people who carted the tiger to Long Island and from there to a wild animal reserve in Ohio. The point is that, without ceremony or debate, this tiger could have been done away with in "a New York minute."


That was Saturday. On Monday, The New York Times published a front-page story -- running to 2,500 words in all -- headlined "Critics Say Execution Drug May Hide Suffering." The gist of the story is that the drug that is used in many states for lethal injections causes excruciating pain, despite the fact that the condemned person shows all the outward signs of a painless, peaceful death. The problem is that pancuronium bromide, one of the ingredients of the death cocktail, "could lead to paralysis that masks intense distress, leaving a wide-awake inmate unable to speak or cry out as he slowly suffocates."


Now, of all the controversial issues confronting America, it seems that this one could be resolved the most easily, within a few minutes. The whole idea of lethal injections was thought up by liberal reformers who, instead of leaving well enough alone, wanted to make executions as painless and sensitive as possible. For centuries, capital offenders were either hung or shot. The electric chair came into popularity at the turn of the last century, but the reason for its appearance was largely a commercial one, a prop in the war between providers of AC and DC current. At the same time, the French were still using the guillotine, which did the job quickly and efficiently, and with a certain panache.


As we all know, thanks to Hollywood and the tabloid press, the Mafia has no problem executing people with as much or as little bloodshed as desired, but often it's done with a bullet to the temple or back of the head. Sometimes the killers like to stick the gun in the victim's mouth. In any event, it's all over in a few seconds.


So why do we -- as a society -- have so much trouble executing people who deserve to be executed? It's because we want to distance ourselves from the act, we want to show some "compassion," we don't want to appear to be cold-hearted brutes, we want to show that, even in handing out death certificates, we are civilized. And here, of course, as in so many other areas in which we want to perform our "good works," the Law of Unforseen Consequences" takes over. Instead of reducing pain and suffering, our goal, we increase pain and suffering.


An important part of the rationale for the electric chair and now the lethal injections is that they increase the amount of ceremony and process into the execution. The more process, the more opportunities for mistakes and delays, and that is exactly what the reformers want. There have been innumerable stories in the press about innocent people on death row, but the fact is that not one innocent person, to anyone's knowledge, has been executed. What the accurate story might be is that there are innocent people on death row (just as in all likelihood there have been far more innocent people who have died after serving lifetime jail sentences) but to date, because of the exhaustive appeals process, none has been executed. And the persons whose trials were faulty are too often proclaimed "innocent" whereas their guilt or innocence is not the issue but rather the conduct of the trial.


Why all of this remains an "issue," entailing a long investigative piece in The New York Times, defies logic. Anyone who has had general anesthesia for an operation knows full well that the surgeon could take a gun and kill the patient without the patient feeling any pain. Even an IV of valium could do the job, preparing the condemned for the coup de grace. But this is too easy, too quick, too insensitive for the reformers, who want to create a "compassionate" process that undoubtedly will leave opportunities for more stays, more reviews, more mistakes. No, a blindfold and a cigarette (except in Bloomberg's New York) is better, and best of all is an old-fashioned Mickey Finn and a blast in the back of the head. Now that's compassion.


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