RALL: Our Love Affair With Official Mass Murder
On the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 8, 1997, while most Americans were trying to choose between Wings and Beverly Hills, 90210, Kirt Wainwright lay strapped to a metal gurney, both of his arms stretched out like a man awaiting crucifixion. A small group of witnesses gawked at him through a one-way mirror from an adjoining room. Nurses employed by the taxpayers of the State of Arkansas stuck needles into each arm and prepared to release poison -- a mixture of sodium pentothal, Pavulon and potassium chloride, if you want to try this at home -- into his veins.At the last minute, Justice Clarence Thomas, who rose to the Supreme Court thanks to the affirmative action programs he opposes, requested a temporary postponement of the execution while he analyzed a potential conflict of interest (Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who rejected Wainwright's request for a stay, knew both of his victims).Meanwhile, Wainwright remained splayed across the death gurney, the needles still in his arms.About 45 minutes later, Thomas decided not to intercede, and the lethal injection went forward as planned.Try to imagine, if you can, the psychological roller-coaster ride that our legal system put this man through. There you are, ready to die, only to be offered a glimmer of hope. But they don't cut you loose, they don't give you a cigarette, they don't let you pace around. You're totally crazy with terror, strapped down, those needles itching, even aching, watching the seconds go by -- then the minutes -- one by one, passing incredibly slowly and quickly at the same time. Then, like some twisted junior-high-school joke ("You're saved...not!") -- game over.Prison spokesperson Dina Tyler, was asked if it might have been more humane to remove the needles while Thomas deliberated his fate. "I don't know," she said.The sickening spectacle of the Wainwright execution was too much even for many death-penalty advocates. For the first time since Gary Gilmore was offed by a Utah firing squad in 1977, the news media is seriously reconsidering the grisly routine of state-sponsored electrocutions, gassings, injections and shootings.Most advocates promote capital punishment as a deterrent to crime, but after two decades of state-run death, it is obvious that it doesn't work. The most bloodthirsty states, Texas, Florida, Virginia and Louisiana, each throw an inmate to the gods once a week on average, but still have some of the highest crime rates in the nation -- including those for capital offenses.Another pro-death argument is that it's more economical to kill prisoners than to feed and house them. Following this rationale, however, would mean murdering everyone convicted of a crime, not just murderers. Moreover, the exploding rate of prison construction (it's California's fastest-growing industry) suggests that our society likes to keep a substantial portion of its population behind bars. Otherwise, why would we jail thousands of people for minor drug-related offenses?The truth is, capital punishment is eye-for-an-eye vengeance, no different than the stonings that Taliban rule has brought to Afghanistan. They killed, so we kill them. And there's no doubt that many of those who are executed deserve to die. For example, Kirt Wainwright was 22 when he robbed a convenience store in Hope, Ark. (Bill Clinton's hometown) in 1988. The clerk, Karen Ross, handed over the money, but he shot her to death nonetheless. The next day, he also murdered another store clerk, Barbara Smith, the same way. Wainwright offered an appeal to neither Karen Ross nor Barbara Smith before he shot them. Unlike him, they never got to say good-bye to their families before they were killed. If anyone ever deserved to die like a dog, it was Kirt Wainwright.Yet, the way we carry out the death penalty -- shrouded in secrecy, with even the executioners hidden from the condemned -- isn't consistent with our bloodlust. These executions are carried out by our criminal justice system, with our taxpayer dollars, and as such should be public affairs. They should be nationally-televised during prime time, and rated for children's viewing. If we sanction state-sponsored death, then we should have the stomach to watch it while we eat our nachos. Why should we protect our kids from what we view as justice? We let them watch the O.J. trial, calling it "educational," why not this?Not even the executioners take pride in their work. As Dina Tyler told the Associated Press, "By doing these [multiple executions] together, you only have to make that climb once to get mentally prepared to do this. I think everybody gets a little tense. It gets a little quiet. You see a lot of set jaws as people steel themselves for what they're about to do."If what they're doing is so right, why are they so tense? And if mass executions are so much easier on the psyche, why not hold executions annually, killing dozens of people at once to make it easier? There are plenty of innovative methods, as demonstrated by such experts as Paul Pot and Adolf Eichmann. They could be buried alive in large pits or thrown into an electrified swimming pool -- whatever makes it easier.It's true that many killers deserve to die, but it doesn't follow that the state should kill them. Why not let relatives of victims kill the killers? After all, they have a vested emotional interest in getting even. By acting in the name of all of us, the government is making us all responsible for these deaths. So...how are you any better than the monsters getting executed every day?The government is supposed to set the highest possible example for human behavior. The state should urge us all to be our best, not turn us all into de facto killers.