Cheating the Executioner

November 5, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death today. No doubt, he will be under close watch to make sure that he does not kill himself.

It’s called “cheating the executioner.” It's a phrase you hear when a murderer shoots himself just as the cops are closing in on him. Or when a prisoner on death row dies of some disease while his case is still pending. It cropped up in the news two weeks ago when a death-row prisoner in Texas, Michael Johnson, committed suicide the day before he was to be executed. He cut his own throat and used the blood to write “I didn’t do it” on his cell wall.

The headline in the Washington Times (the online version at least) was “Death Row Inmate Cheats Executioner,” and some other papers had similar wording. That headline, along with the reported detail that death-row inmates are checked on every fifteen minutes, tells us a lot about the real reasons for the death penalty, and they are not the ones usually given.

One rationale for the death penalty is that it saves innocent lives. Supposedly, it deters other potential murderers. Or it “incapacitates” the executed murderer so that he can’t kill again. In reality, there’s not a lot of convincing data to support the idea that executions have any impact on murder rates. But evidence is not really relevant because most death-penalty supporters base their opinions not on the practical effects of executions but on principles of justice and morality: a person who commits a horrible crime does not “deserve” to live. It’s a matter of right and wrong, and regardless of the impact on future murders, it would be wrong to let him live.

If the criminal’s death were the central issue, as it is in these three rationales, it wouldn’t matter how he died; he would still have been removed from society. So we are not looking at a simple rational process. The irrationality is clear in the standard death-row procedure of the 15-minute suicide watch. If the guards had caught Mr. Johnson in time, the best medical help would have been called and no effort spared to save his life. Then, weeks or months later, when he had recovered, the state would kill him.

Why does the state go to such extraordinary lengths —checking every fifteen minutes— to make sure that some condemned man doesn’t pull a fast one and kill himself. Why, when death comes by suicide or cancer rather than execution, do some people feel “cheated”? What were they cheated of?

The answer is clear. The death-row suicide deprives us of only one thing: the chance to inflict the punishment ourselves via our representative the executioner. The importance of the execution is not the effect it has on the criminal — that effect is the same regardless of the cause of death — but its effect on society, on those who carry out the execution. It allows them to dramatize that they and their morality are in control. It draws a clear line, with “us” on the good side and the criminal on the other.

This is the logic behind President Bush’s characterizing the 9/11 bombers as “cowards.” It was not only that they killed unsuspecting civilians. They also cheated us of the privilege of trying and executing them, of showing them who was boss and who was right. The trial, sentence, and execution would have drawn that line between us and them, between good and evil, a line which the president and many other Americans desperately wanted to draw. No doubt, many Iraqis— and Americans— will feel the same way about Saddam.

By executing the criminal, the “good” people confirm their own virtue. Any other form of death cheats them of this occasion to feel good about themselves and secure in their morality.

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