A few years ago, I interviewed former Florida prison warden Ron Andrews about the death sentences he’d carried out. He spoke of the ghastly mechanics of putting a man to death, about how, after a lethal injection, he’d been required to pull the needles out of the prisoner (a man that he’d known intimately for years), how following an electrocution, the dead eyes of the inmate were left frozen open, staring at him as he stuffed the corpse into a body bag, put it into a hearse and brought it to the medical examiner’s office.
“When they say cause of death, do you know what the word is?” he continued. “It’s homicide. Homicide!”
It certainly felt like murder yesterday, watching the #TroyDavis hashtag tick away the last minutes of a man’s life.
Davis’ lawyer described what took place as a legal lynching. But that’s not quite the right term for Thursday’s cold-blooded and clinical killing.
Yes, capital punishment in the US has an intimate relationship with race. If you plot the locations in which black men were lynched before 1940 you end up with a map of the states still most enthusiastic about the death penalty today.
Yet the peculiar horror yesterday’s morning came, in part, precisely because Davis’ killing was not some throwback to the past. It was, rather an acutely modern execution, a death performed impersonally and efficiently according to the Georgia prison protocols, with the condemned man due to die at 7pm but temporarily reprieved while officials dutifully waited for a final High Court ruling, so that Davis didn’t actually die until 11.08 pm.
In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick argues that the outcry over the execution (even Kim Kardashian took to Twitter to urge clemency) represents the beginning of the end of capital punishment in the US.
And maybe she’s right.
Yet, while plenty of US liberals are against the death penalty, three times as many Americans say they strongly favour executions as say they strongly oppose them (33% versus 11% respectively).
In an acutely polarised political environment, capital punishment has taken on a talismanic quality for the Right. At a recent GOP presidential debate, Republican frontrunner Rick Perry was asked about the record number of executions — an astonishing 234 — conducted by Texas under his administration. The mere mention of the death penalty prompted the Tea Partiers in the crowd to applaud. Then, as Perry promised to keep the killings coming, they erupted into cheers and hollers.
The enthusiasm for Perry’s lethal record seems entirely undimmed by revelations that one of the men he sent to the chamber was, like Troy Davis, most likely innocent.
Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murdering his daughters in a house fire. Perry signed that death warrant despite scientific opinion suggesting that no arson had actually taken place, that the fire was, as Willingham always maintained, a terrible accident.
Later, Perry scuttled an inquiry that seemed set to posthumously exonerate the dead man.
Once upon a time, executing an innocent might have meant the end of your political career. Not in the GOP — not in 2011.
On the contrary, Willingham’s death has, it seems, bolstered Perry’s fortunes, at least among the Republican base. As Justin Elliot explained in Salon:
Multiple former […] advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man — Cameron Todd Willingham — and got this response from a primary voter: “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”
The sentiment might seem sociopathic. But consider how guilt and innocence have evolved over the past decade.
With the onset of the war on terror, Dick Cheney announced a need to channel “the dark side”. Since then, US politicians of all denominations have accepted that strong leadership is defined by preparedness to dismiss legal niceties and ethical qualms. Hence President Obama’s intensification of the drone strikes that regularly wipe out whole families in Pakistan. Today, almost no mainstream commentators flinch at the US assassinating those it dubs terrorists, even if those assassinations require Predator drones killing entirely innocent civilians.
Or, to put it another way, innocence no longer brings immunity, since guilt applies to categories rather than individuals.
Hence Guantanamo, where the US has been prepared to detain indefinitely without charge or trial people whom it knows not to be terrorists. They haven’t done anything wrong — but they’re not innocent, either, since, for many Americans, all Muslims are objects of suspicion, and don’t deserve the traditional protections of the justice system.
It’s not so surprising that similar attitudes should creep into domestic politics.
For the hard core Tea Partiers who dominate the GOP, the kinds of people who end up on death row are already guilty, irrespective of the crimes they did or didn’t commit.
At a later Republican debate at which moderator Wolf Blitzer quizzed the libertarian Ron Paul about his attitude to health care.
“What do you tell a guy who is sick, goes into a coma and doesn’t have health insurance?” Blitzer asked. “Who pays for his coverage? Are you saying society should just let him die?”
“Yeah!” several members of the crowd called.
It’s the same attitude that led conservative columnist Matthew Vadum to argue that welfare recipients shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
“Registering them […] is like handing out burglary tools to criminals,” he wrote. “It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country.”
Vadum’s an extremist, a wingut’s wingnut, but many in the Tea Party are quite open in a similarly overt hostility to the inner city poor, particularly inner city blacks.
That’s why the innocence or guilt of any particular death row inhabitant doesn’t move them.
Voltaire famously explained that Britain found it necessary to shoot an admiral from time to time “pour l’encouragement des autres” (to encourage the others).
When a state can coldly and deliberately set out to kill a man, the reverberations are felt throughout the society as a whole. For a certain conservative mindset, every execution plays the same role: it reminds the poor of their place. Thus fussing about the precise details of the accused’s actions is an intolerable pedantry, for the electric chair and the lethal injection are not meant to deter murderers so much as demonstrate the preparedness of society to discipline its underclass.
Hence that focus group admiration for politicians prepared to clear death row, untroubled about the occasional miscarriage of justice. It does, indeed, take balls to kill an innocent man — but there’s nothing the populist Right admires more than a Jack Bauer-style ruthlessness.
Among those who campaigned to save Troy Davis was Ron Andrews, the warden I once interviewed. Along with other former death row wardens, he signed an open letter calling for a stay.
In part, their argument rested upon the effect of capital punishment upon those who administer it.
“While most of the prisoners whose executions we participated in accepted responsibility for the crimes for which they were punished,” they wrote, “some of us have also executed prisoners who maintained their innocence until the end. It is those cases that are most haunting to an executioner. We write to you today with the overwhelming concern that an innocent person could be executed in Georgia tonight. We know the legal process has exhausted itself in the case of Troy Anthony Davis, and yet, doubt about his guilt remains. This very fact will have an irreversible and damaging impact on your staff. […] Living with the nightmares is something that we know from experience. No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt.”
Of course, the appeal had no effect.
Why would it? The men and women employed in America’s jails are drawn, by and large, from a similar social layer to the men and women imprisoned there. In contemporary politics, such people are objects, not subjects. The conservatives who don’t care what happened to Troy Davis are equally indifferent to those tasked with putting him to death.
The struggle against capital punishment is no longer, if it ever was, a simple matter of legal reform. It’s much more than that, fundamentally entwined with a struggle over the soul of America.