Let’s be clear about what we’re not saying. We’re not saying that certain combinations of drugs should be banned from execution protocols, though it is obvious the state is trying and failing to use some drugs in a way they were never designed to be used. We’re not saying that the state needs to come clean about the drugs they are using and where and how they obtained those drugs, though the government’s arrogant and absurd claim that they need to protect the pharmacies from undivulged (and imaginary?) threats is an insult to an informed public. And we’re not saying that the lethal injection protocol needs to be fine-tuned to avoid black market drugs and assure that professionals are in attendance in the killing chamber, though the three ring circus that passes for a state-mandated execution has brought shame to the United States.
We’re saying that the idea of a humane execution is like the idea of a safe drag race – no matter how well designed the cars are, and how safe the track, and how trained the drivers, crashes are going to happen. That’s what happened in Arizona yesterday afternoon, when a human being – Robert Rudolph Wood – crashed after one hour and fifty-seven minutes of suffocation. This is not a surprise. While we all know about Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, and the more informed among us know about Dennis McGuire and Romell Broom and Joseph Clark in Ohio and Angel Diaz in Florida and Joseph Cannon in Texas and Tommie Smith in Indiana and Emmitt Foster in Missouri and who knows how many more, our courts (who are always the last to know or at least the last to admit that they know) are slowly coming around. Listen to the prescient Chief Judge Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit only two days ago: “Whatever happens to Wood, the attacks will not stop and for a simple reason: The enterprise is flawed. Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful – like something any one of us might experience in our final moments. But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality.”
But Chief Judge Kozinski goes on to complete the circle in blood – if drugs don’t work, and they don’t, let’s go back to something that does. “The guillotine is probably best but seems inconsistent with our national ethos. And the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are each subject to the occasional mishaps. The firing squad strikes me as the most promising.” There is no sarcasm here, and surely no parody – Judge Kozinski is a well-known conservative thinker and long time supporter of the death penalty. “If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all,” he concludes.
The judge is right, even when he’s wrong. We as a society cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by the firing squad, any more than we can stomach a head falling into a bucket – the firing squad, the guillotine, hanging, they are all against our national ethos. And for one and only one reason: we are no longer comfortable with state-sanctioned killing. We cannot put lace on the pig, much as we might try. We are not going back to lining people up against the wall and shooting them, because we knew when we were doing it that it wasn’t right. And it isn’t right now. Just as lethal injection isn’t right now. It’s time to stop pretending it is.