Saturday, April 9, 2022

Why are we killing people?

You don’t have to walk through the foreboding entry to Auschwitz to find a gas chamber. No, you can drive on over to Arizona, where--as society continued to stagger from Covid-19 and its effects--the gas chamber at the Arizona State Prison Complex was refurbished

Walking into Auschwitz I in spring 2013

This particular gas chamber had been lying unused since 1999, but it may be used once again. The first execution in nearly 8 years--in the gorgeous state of Arizona--is scheduled. As all this is happening, a man on South Carolina's Death Row has just been given an option: for his scheduled execution later this month, he will be able to pick death by firing squad or death by the electric chair--because yes, within the past month or two, the Department of Corrections completed a $50,000 project to equip the death chamber for firing squad executions. 

(I find myself wondering if that $50,000 could instead be used to feed the homeless, help the families of victims, or work towards the rehabilitation of prison inmates in some small way. Just a thought.)

A sponsor of the firing squad legislation in South Carolina, Senator Dick Harpootlian, offered this statement on the subject: “It’s tragic that a civilized society should eliminate anybody[...] But if it has to be done, it should be done as humanely as possible.” 

This senator, and other people I've read statements by, seem to soften the issue with noble-sounding language. It's "humane" to offer a particular method, it's "justice" to kill these people (some of whom are verifiably innocent, or at the very least have reasonable doubt of guilt), it's "the state" conducting executions. 

Is it actually humane to kill other people? 

Is it actually justice to end the lives of people who have been sitting in a cell for years (or decades) without hurting anyone in that time? 

Is it actually an ambiguous "State" conducting these executions--or are there actual flesh-and-blood people who try to shift responsibility for these deaths to other people, to machines, to the Law? 

I hope we can look at statements that have been made about the death penalty and recognize just how blatantly cold and inhumane they are. Statements which spread a message that it's somehow "humane" to enact this system of premeditated killing across America. And premeditated killing is exactly what the death penalty is. Don't try to dress it up with talk of a "humane" firing squad or "humane" lethal injection. 

Why are we putting people in a gas chamber, sticking them in front of a firing squad, strapping them to an electric chair, injecting them with lethal drugs? Aren’t we better than this? Why are we killing people?

I think of a scene in season one of Daredevil, when Wilson Fisk--the main villain--has been enjoying a quiet dinner with Vanessa, a woman he is quickly falling for. Out of the large windows, they see a series of explosions tear across Hell's Kitchen, the flames stretching up into the dark night sky. Vanessa looks at this destruction, a sense of shock striking her calm features. 

Wilson gently asks her, "Did you read about the boy who watched his father being pulled from their car and beaten, before the boy was taken?”

She nods silently. 

Wilson speaks again, firmly: “The men that did that…they will no longer infect this city.”

Vanessa, as she turns her face back to the burning buildings, resolutely says: “Good.”

Fisk's justification here sounds eerily like some of the reasons we use in justifying the death penalty in America. He'll never be able to hurt anyone againThe Victims deserve justice. Considering the fact that Wilson Fisk had ended the previous episode by decapitating a man (with a car door...after the man had interrupted Wilson's dinner date), I'm not sure that he's the best model for judgement on moral issues. 

Marvel villains aside, I've recently been pondering the benefit of living with intentionality; of knowing my purpose, and end goal. I strive to make choices that will help me achieve my purpose, instead of making choices that will push me away from my goals. This process involves a lot of wondering, as I ask myself why I plan to do, support, or work towards something. As we consider the death penalty--particularly as more states restart executions--I wonder if we can all use this type of process as we honestly determine our motivations. 

Why are we carrying out the death penalty when we are able to safely contain those who have committed wrongdoings? Why are we supporting the death penalty? Why are we pouring so many resources into perfecting the art of premeditated killing? Again, let's ask: Why are we killing people? 

Why, why, why?

Let's keep the questions coming, and let's keep hope alive. 

We may not be able to instantaneously create a culture that respects all human life from conception to natural death, but little by little, we can work towards this goal as we respect each other's dignity and life. 

We are on the brink of Holy Week right now, a period of time when we enter into the intensity of Christ's Passion and death. How appropriate that, as various states schedule executions, we can bring our sorrow to Christ as we meditate on his pain and suffering. And how beautiful that, in just a week, we will celebrate the great feast of Easter, of Jesus Christ rising from the dead. 

No matter how brutal and dark areas of our country (and world) may seem, we can seize joy-filled hope as we remember that our loving and merciful God has conquered death. 


  1. This is a beautiful and thought provoking post, AnneMarie! Its so sad to think of these people on death row and all the lives lost through this violent act but I really love your perspective of keeping hope alive, remembering that especially during this sacred time of year. Ps. Loved your most recent newsletter - a great and timely reminder for me!!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing those things, Elisabeth! As I've learned more about our justice system in general, and the death penalty in particular, I've been pretty heartbroken to see just how flawed and full of tragedy and death it all is...but it's been helpful to remember to entrust all things to God. And I'm glad you loved the newsletter! I hope that you have a blessed and peaceful Triduum-it's such a beautiful and holy time of year :)

  2. Thanks for sharing this, AnneMarie. Personally, I feel that one can't truly be "pro-life" and be in favor of the death penalty. Life needs to mean all life.
    Anyway, the more I learn about the death penalty, especially how it has been applied over the years, the more I see how some individuals are more likely to be executed than others. This highlights the fact that it isn't really about justice. Additionally, it shows just how marred the system is by our human imperfections.

    1. You are welcome, Shannon! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and encouragement :) I'm with you; I don't really see how you can be "pro-life" while simultaneously supporting the death penalty. I wonder if perhaps people haven't ever thought to question this practice and that's why they don't take issue with it-and in some cases, I do think there's an unfortunate tendency that we can have to dehumanize others who have committed crimes (in an article about the recent execution of Carl Buntion in Texas, the wife of the man Buntion killed gave the statement that "I didn't think of him as a person. I just thought of him as a thing, as a cancer on the face of my family." And I'm guessing that there are other people who share these types of sentiments). I hope and pray that as we continue to talk about this issue more, and as we grow in our respect for the human person, it will become even more apparent that the death penalty needs to end! It's really great that you've been learning more about this issue-I've been finding that a number of people don't really want to talk about it or dive deeper (probably because it's very uncomfortable). Good for you!