Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Send not to know for whom the bell tolls

The news that Utah has executed another prisoner is sad. There are plenty of things about this case which make it unusual in the steady dripp, drip, drip of American executions. For a start it was by firing squad rather than the more usual lethal injection. More significantly, perhaps (the method of execution was Ronnie Lee Gardner's own choice) the execution was not of a black man, nor of someone mentally deficient, nor of someone who was a juvenile at the time of the offence. Most unusual of all, in this case there was no doubt whatsoever of the condemned man's guilt.

And yet. And yet.

Standing alongside Gardner's daughter and comforting her was the niece of the man Gardner murdered, Michael Burdell, a lawyer he shot in an attempted courtroom breakout. Donna Taylor, his niece, said that all his life her uncle had had a visceral dislike of violence and killing of any nature, so much so that when he was drafted for the Vietnam war he nade sure he was put in a role that did not involve carrying a gun. "Mike was totally against the death penalty", said Donna. "He would not have wanted this: he would have said this doesn't do any good."

Yes, the Bible tells us that "Thou shalt do no murder". It does not, however, mandate the death penalty for those who transgress. Jesus's message was "Love thine enemies, and do good to them that hate you". Saint Paul expressed it with his customary elegance: "Render to no man evil for evil". The Bible condemns adultery, yet we rightly cry shame when adulterers in Saudi Arabia or Iran receive the death penalty. If we are going to hold uo the example of Jesus against their Old Testament literalism, should we not do the same when the state of Utah, or any other place, arrogates to itself the right to terminate a wrongdoer's life?

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It is rare that I find anything positive to say about the constitution of the state of Israel, but the absence of any provision therein for a death sentence to be imposed by Israeli courts is one of the few good examples of human rights which Israel sets to the world.

It is a pity, then, that when the Israeli government had Adolf Eichmann in its power it ignored its own constitution and - uniquely - executed him. I suppose at least that shows that Israeli governments show as much contempt for their own laws as they do for everyone else's.

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One thing I find especially distasteful about American executions is the effort put into shielding the executioners from their own consciences. With lethal injections there are two switches, one of which is randomly assigned to be the one which causes the injection to be administered, the other being a dummy. The Utah firing sqaud had five members, five guns, and only four real bullets, so that every exceutioner could tell himself that maybe his bullet was the ineffective one and he had killed nobody. How sick is that? That lowers the members of the firing squad below the moral level of Ronnie Lee Gardner, who at least acknowledged that he had shot a man and killed him.

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I was interested to see from the report in the Independent (linked above) that the Utah state press pack explained that "Organ donation is not an option for condemned inmates". Not only does that seem a little harsh on the only people who could possibly benefit from this unnecessary death, it also shows that procedures have changed since Utah resumed shooting prisoners to death, back in 1977 when it killed Gary Gilmore. Accoridng to Gilmore's Wikipedia entry most of his organs were used for transplantation. How many more backward steps will Utah take before the death penalty is purged from the statutes and America moves from the nineteenth century into the twentieth?

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