The Death Penalty as Performance

While living in Tennessee I’ve paid taxes to a government that performs executions. You’ll find that sort of language—the language of performance—if you read up on the death penalty. “Tennessee performs first electric chair execution since 1960,” reads a newspaper article from 2007.

“Performance” can mean a couple of things. I could tell you that I saw a performance of Wicked a couple of months ago or I could tell you that a surgeon once performed knee surgery on me. When news outlets write that a State performed an execution they intend, presumably, to invoke the second, less theatrical sort of meaning. They simply mean to say that the State carried out the task of executing a condemned inmate. And maybe that’s the common sense reading of a phrase like “Tennessee performs executions.”

But that’s not the reading or meaning that I have in mind.

When I say that Tennessee performs executions I mean to invoke the first and more theatrical meaning of “perform.” I mean that the performance of an execution is, in many if not most ways, comparable to the performance of a musical like Wicked. And, no, I’m not drawing an analogy or speaking metaphorically for the sake of making a point. I mean to say, in the plainest way possible, that the performance of an execution and the performance of Wicked are comparable.

Consider the following little bit of reporting from the New York Times, which was concerned with a recent botched execution in Oklahoma:

“Robert Patton, Oklahoma’s director of corrections, halted the execution after a physician discovered that Mr. Lockett’s vein had ruptured. The physician lowered the blinds, blocking the view from the witness room.”

When the state executes someone there are witnesses, but it is more accurate to call them an audience. In execution chambers there are blinds, but it is more accurate to call them curtains. In fact, some execution chambers have actual curtains instead of window blinds.

Here are a few pictures of various execution chambers.

Picture One. Picture Two. Picture Three.

Notice the closed off room, the windows, the curtains, the microphone that carries sound into the viewing area so that the audience can know what they are seeing.

What would you call this if not a (theatrical) performance?

The witnesses, the audience, they only see what they are intended to see. The curtains are typically closed until the condemned is strapped to the gurney. The state might even administer paralyzing drugs before the curtains are opened. The whole scene is meant to come across as tranquil, medicalized, and humane. Should the performance go poorly enough—as in the case of the condemned who struggles or appears to be in torturous pain—then the director can close the curtain. He can quickly end that evening’s showing.

Why would there be curtains in the first place? Aren’t curtains always for staging, or for concealment, or for controlling what is seen and not seen by outside observers?

Of course an execution is always staged somehow, with or without elements like curtains that directly resemble features of the theater. The staging is different for an execution by guillotine, or by hanging, or by lethal injection, or by electric chair. And different stagings are bound to produce different reactions in the audience.

I ran across an interview with a warden as I was researching capital punishment a couple of months ago. The warden wondered aloud to the interviewer why the state, if it was interested in painless and humane forms of execution, didn’t kill the condemned by carbon monoxide poisoning. The condemned inmate, the warden said, would slip away to unconsciousness and then die in their sleep, painlessly. The warden speculated that this would be the best option for the condemned, but he quickly pointed out that the witnesses to a carbon monoxide execution would likely find the appearance of a person who has been killed by carbon monoxide to be off-putting. (Their skin turns a ruddy, cherry-red.)

So our opinion of what is “humane” depends far more on the perceptions and tastes of witnesses to an execution than the experience of the one who is executed. The state, then, has an interest in staging what appears to be a humane execution. But that’s the extent of the states interest in the humane treatment of those who are condemned to death. The experience and impressions of the witnesses/audience is the only thing that finally matters, just as a theatrical performance is judged strictly by its popular and critical reception.

I would tend to think, then, that an execution cannot be botched unless the State fails to kill the condemned. What is botched in the case of a “botched execution” is the attempt at staging an execution as if it is humane and routine as opposed to cruel and unusual. In other words, the State’s botches it’s performance of a humane execution, and in so doing it presents the witnesses with something other than what was planned, scripted, and rehearsed.

Next time I’ll write about last meals as a way of suggesting that the implementation of the death penalty is always cruel and menacing regardless of any attempts by the State to make it seem humane.



One comment

  1. Pingback: Last Meals: A Menacing/Humane Feature of the Death Penalty | A Holy Impatience

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