Scared to death
The state of Arkansas in America had a problem. Its stock of one of the drugs used for lethal injection is due to expire, and so the “solution” that it came up with was to schedule eight executions within 11 days in April. Two inmates will be executed daily, over four separate days. The planned executions have been described, in an article in the British newspaper The Guardian, as “a conveyor belt of killing.”
As if that were not messy enough, Arkansas is now dealing with additional problems. First, it can’t get enough witnesses for the executions. The law requires at least six for each execution, and there doesn’t seem to be enough volunteers.
Second, there are concerns that the executions will exact a heavy psychosocial toll on those that would carry these out. The Guardian article is aptly titled “Arkansas order may endanger staff’s mental health” and includes accounts of the trauma suffered by executioners in past executions.
The article starts out with an interview with Dr. Allen Ault who, as commissioner of the Department of Corrections in the state of Georgia, gave the order for five executions in 1994 and 1995. After the last of the executions—all by electric chair—Ault resigned from his post and moved to another job in the US justice department that has nothing to do with the death penalty.
But Ault says he remains haunted by the memory of the five who were executed. “What I did was much more premeditated than any of the murders committed by those I executed,” he told The Guardian. Apparently, his issuance of the execution order was made only after he had gone through a long list of protocols in a manual.
Twenty-three other former corrections officials from 16 different states sent a joint letter to the governor of Arkansas warning of, based on their personal experiences, the “severe toll on corrections officers’ wellbeing” that would happen with so many executions taking place within a short span of time.
Not so simple
It looks like the death penalty will be restored soon in the Philippines, and I hope our legislators know what they’re doing.
The death penalty has been touted as a simple solution to the drug problem in the country. “Simple” because people think it’s so easy to execute people through one of three methods proposed for the Philippines: electric chair, lethal injection, or hanging.
Lethal injection was the method in use at the time the death penalty was abolished here. People equate it to putting someone to sleep, like veterinarians sometimes do with pets that are in great pain from an accident or terminal illness.
It turns out that a lethal injection, usually involving three drugs, can be terribly problematic. In Arkansas, the drug about to expire is midazolam, a sedative better known in the Philippines as Dormicum and in other countries as Versed. A large dose is injected to sedate the convict before the administration of two other drugs that will cause the heart and the respiratory system to stop functioning.
But in recent years there have been horrific reports of midazolam not causing enough sedation quickly enough, so the convict—I typed in “patient” and had to change it—suffers severe pain as the other drugs are introduced. The executions are described as “botched,” prolonged, and causing great distress to the convict and to the witnesses as well.
Arkansas’ problem reflects still another problem with lethal-injection executions: Drug companies, citing ethical considerations, are now averse to supplying the drugs if these are to be used for executions. The supply has become very limited.
We should be observing what’s going on in America, and anticipating some of the problems being faced in Arkansas and other states where the death penalty remains in the books. I wonder if we might end up having to use hanging or the firing squad—methods which are undoubtedly barbaric but which might be slightly more “merciful” than lethal injection.
With threats from the President to have daily executions, we have to wonder if there will be psychological effects on witnesses, and on the executioners. In an earlier column I’ve warned that given how cheap life is in the Philippines, and how frequent and widespread extrajudicial executions are, Filipinos might have become desensitized to killing (which capital punishment actually is, even if provided for by law). I’ve even wondered if executions will be treated as public spectacle, maybe even, horrors of horrors, cheered on.
On the other hand, I have talked with media practitioners who have covered the killings in the war on drugs, both buy-bust (“legal”) and extrajudicial executions, and they say they continue to be deeply affected even if they have been at many of the killing sites and have seen many corpses.
Sure, these killings are gory and bloody, while capital punishment will be almost antiseptic, but any decent human being will still feel something, or a cocktail of emotions: revulsion, disgust, anger, grief, despair.
Will executioners and jail officials feel these, too?
Frankly, I don’t know, especially after watching the recent New York Times video on the extrajudicial executions, which includes an interview with one of the policemen involved in buy-bust operations. There is no remorse, just a sense that he is doing what needs to be done, on orders from the top.
He speaks with a bandana on his face that shows only the eyes—and, contrary to popular perception, you can’t read a person’s emotions just through the eyes. Might there have been a bit of machismo boasting there?
In times of war, people kill because they are totally convinced they are in the right, and the enemy—often dehumanized through propaganda—deserves to die. Perhaps that is what will happen, and executions in the Philippines won’t be as problematic as in Arkansas and other American states.
From a philosophical viewpoint, I always have to shake my head seeing how Americans try so hard to make capital punishment “humane,” as if that were at all possible. All because people want to believe that you can make citizens “behave” by, well, scaring them to death.
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