Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed at approximately 12:05 AM at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, Utah. And even more than other death penalty cases, this one stirred strong emotion because it was carried out by firing squad.
At Mr. Gardner’s request, he was strapped to a chair and shot by a team of five executioners, four of whose rifles contained live ammunition.
While I’m opposed to the death penalty, once the citizens of a state have agreed to permit it, I am entirely supportive of implementing it by firing squad. In fact, as long as it is limited to cases in which the convicted felon elects that method, I think it’s actually a good way to go.
How can someone opposed to the death penalty make such a claim? While done with a heavy heart, it’s a matter of honesty and clarity about the brutality of taking another human being’s life, even if that person “deserves” it.
If citizens really long for the death of another human being, then let it be as messy and horrible as taking a life really is. And if doing so bothers us, perhaps we shouldn’t be executing the person at all!
We have used technology to avoid the ugliness of execution for a very long time. First it was the electric chair which was supposed to be “more efficient” than hanging. Now we send in teams of people dressed in white coats who in a macabre parody of hospital procedure, strap someone to a gurney, hook up an IV and let the “drugs” do their job. If that isn’t twisted, I don’t know what is.
Of course, with each new technological advance in execution, we are told that it is a matter of mercy, of trying to make things as humane as possible. And while I appreciate that mitigating the victim’s suffering is certainly part of the calculation, it’s only a part. After all, they end up dead either way.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the mercy sought is as much for those doing the killing as it is for the victim. Even in the case of a firing squad, one shooter gets a blank and none of them know which one that is. Why? Because the executioners need some distance from, and doubt about, what they are doing.
Creating that distance may well perpetuate the practice of imposing the death penalty. I support firing squads because of the personal responsibility they impose on those who execute, and because the full awareness of the horror of taking another life may actually lead to fewer executions.
I oppose the death penalty on both humanitarian and spiritual grounds. While I appreciate that there may be crimes for which people deserve to die, i.e. acts so heinous that we cannot imagine any other legitimate response, actually taking their life is something else altogether.
From a legal/humanitarian perspective, execution demands that we ignore the possibility of human error, and the general principle which holds that we would rather see ten guilty people go free than one innocent person punished. If we cannot uphold that commitment, our entire legal system is at risk.
From a spiritual perspective, implementing the death penalty precludes any measure of mercy to balance whatever concept of justice might justify executing a criminal. And just as any system of mercy which ignores the demands of justice is not truly merciful; any system of justice which leaves no room for mercy is no system of justice at all.
From a Jewish perspective, while the Hebrew Bible is filled with transgressions for which death is the prescribed penalty, there is only one instance in the Five Books of Moses in which someone is executed by the court. In fact, later rabbinic tradition teaches that if the death penalty is imposed once in 70 years, that’s called a terrorist court. While having the death penalty on the books as a statement may have some merit, imposing it seems not to.
I appreciate the urge to execute villains – even the theoretical arguments which justify it, just not the wisdom or decency of actually doing it. Perhaps shooting Ronnie Lee Gardner will wake us up to that distinction. Perhaps his will be the last execution.
Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and is the president of Clal--The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
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