We the People, We the Executioner

Les Miserables opens with a portrait of the Bishop of Digne, Monsieur Myriel. The kind-hearted priest, nick-named Bienvenu by his parishioners, is painted by Hugo as a sincerely merciful man. To that end, Hugo goes so far as to describe the allocation of Myriel’s annual salary, which shows how little Myriel spends on himself and how much he returns to those in need. Part and parcel to this beneficence is Myriel’s displeasure with the guillotine. Where Hugo portrays Myriel’s thoughts on the scaffold, he writes one paragraph, worth quoting at length:

Indeed, the scaffold, when it is there, set up and ready, has a profoundly hallucinatory effect. We may be indifferent to the death penalty and not declare ourselves, either way so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But when we do, the shock is violent, and we are compelled to choose sides, for or against. Some, like Le Maistre, admire it; others, like Beccaria, execrate it. The guillotine is the law made concrete; it is called the Avenger. It is not neutral and does not permit you to remain neutral. Whoever sees it quakes, mysteriously shaken to the core. All social problems set up their question mark around that blade. The scaffold is vision. The scaffold is not mere frame, the scaffold is not an inert mechanism made of wood, iron, and ropes. It seems like a creature with some dark origin we cannot fathom, it is as though the framework sees and hears, the mechanism understands, as though the wood and iron and ropes have their own will. In the hideous nightmare it projects across the soul, the awful apparition of the scaffold fuses with its terrible work. The scaffold becomes the accomplice of the executioner; it devours, eats flesh, and drinks blood. The scaffold is a sort of monster created by judge and carpenter, a specter that seems to live with an unspeakable vitality, drawn from all the death it has wrought.

Neither taking nor leaving Hugo’s greater claims concerning the moral justification of the death penalty, one must grant his first claim:  the sight of it forces the spectator to make a decision. One cannot remain aloof when the gallows, the chair, or the gurney are brought before the public as instruments of state-sanctioned violence and (purported) deterrence.

While it is certain that today fewer people have actually witnessed an execution than in previous generations where hangings (or, in the days of the French Revolution, guillotinings) were public events (for example, the Montana Execution Manual [TM 01/05.15] designates that there only be room for twelve witnesses and two correctional officers to view an execution), the ubiquity and simultaneity of media coverage of capital punishments means that people are all the more aware of executions happening across the country — especially when the execution is botched, such as in the horrific case of Clayton Lockett. Nevertheless, the fact of the execution is brought before our eyes no less forcefully today than in 1790s France.

Given the common social knowledge of its extension, the tension of the disinterested spectator ought to be felt more keenly in lands where the death penalty comes by way of legislation passed and upheld by representatives whom we the people have elected. In the United States, we must reckon with the fact that we as a community share responsibility for each noose, volt of electricity, and intravenous needle used by the State to execute men and women in our name. The representative democracy prevents the represented from claiming no part in the process, from letting the State do what it wills (with no input from the citizenry). The individual must ask herself not merely whether she does or does not care for the death penalty; the question becomes whether one is comfortable with this blood being on her hands, on our hands. Because the death penalty is not imposed from without, by divine fiat, or through the hand of the king, we each must either applaud capital punishment as a social institution of justice or work tirelessly against it.

The permanency of the punishment permits no half-hearted gesture. Because capital punishment is irreversible, and because it comes through individuals acting as representatives of the State, it engenders a response either for or against. It can be neither a necessary evil which we tolerate nor a pipe dream for which we hope. Fortunately, a recent Pew poll suggests that only 6% of Americans are unsure of their position on capital punishment.

Unfortunately, capital punishment seems to fly in the face of the stated goal of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, whose website claims as a goal to “provide reentry programming to ensure [federal inmates’] successful return to the community.” If one is to take the federal goal as generally indicative of the states’, one must be lead to believe that there is some sort of cognitive dissonance at work when we cage men like animals in an overcrowded jail, where a daily fear for life overwhelms and promotes sub-human and sub-social qualities, or when those who most clearly need help — those imprisoned for life or those committed to the death penalty — are neglected. In fact, the recidivism rates nationwide suggest that we have, by and large, failed those who have fallen on the wrong side of the law.

Is this something that we should be comfortable with? Should non-redemptive punishment, execution, and release be the goal of the criminal justice system across the nation, or ought we aim at something which would undoubtedly better society — that is, a consistent pattern of successful social reintegration for inmates?

Many will say that those who are sent to prison, are released, and are arrested again have only gotten what they deserve. Perhaps we too get what we deserve when they are released angrier and more prone to crime than before they entered.

One comment

  1. […] its ultimacy, Christian endorsement of capital punishment beggars belief in the repeated claims that it is the ultimate expression of god’s justice, if […]


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