The Dramaturgy of Death. Garry Wills discerns fourteen types of capital punishment in terms of the social and emotional purpose served, of which a given execution embodies a certain combination. But, he argues,

“they all demand,

in logic, maximum display and publicity. The outlaw’s status must be proclaimed for people to act on it.

The other effects sought—whether cleansing, order enforcement, delegitimation, humiliation, repayment,

therapy, deterrence—can only be achieved if an audience sees what is being done to satisfy, intimidate,

soothe, or instruct it. “

But our ethos forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” so we choose painless execution methods that do not disfigure, and

“we now provide (the condemned) with a long and costly

process meant to ascertain guilt, with free legal aid if he cannot afford his own, with counseling and family

visits, with reading of his choice and TV, a last meal to his specifications, a last request, religious

attendance, guaranteed burial, a swift and nearly painless death. We shut up his last hours from the

general public, and act as if this secret rite will deter by some magic of mere occurrence. We treat the

killing as a dirty little secret, as if we are ashamed of it. Well, we should be ashamed. Having given up on

most of the previous justifications for the death penalty, we cling to a mere vestige of the practice, relying

most urgently on one of the least defensible defenses of it, “

“…the insistence on using the deterrence

argument when it has been discredited by all the most reputable studies”, yet many politicians look to the polls instead of the policy studies in supporting the death penalty. Deterrence theory has the wind knocked out of it, too, by the increasing public awareness of the numbers of innocent people wrongly condemned to die, after “incompetent defenses, faked evidence and negligent procedure.” If the public knows it’s a matter of chance if the right person is caught and killed for a capital crime, deterrence won’t work.

“These considerations join longer-term flaws in the deterrence argument. Juries are readiest to

convict people for crimes of passion, sexually charged rape-murders, child-abuse murders, or

serial killings. To see these offenders caught will not necessarily affect the person most likely to

have the coolness and calculation that deterrence requires. And obviously they do not affect

other people in the grip of obsessions, mental instability, or drug- or alcohol-induced frenzy.

Plato was against executing those guilty of a crime of passion (Laws 867c-d), but our juries

reflect more the anger of society than the didactic strategies of deterrence. In doing this, the

juries fail to make the calculations that we are told future murderers will make. The whole

theory is senseless.”

Wills similarly disposes of the argument that execution creates ‘closure’ for the victim’s survivors. And he closes by holding our moral hypocrisy up to us in the mirror of our Clown Prince:

“Conservative Catholics, who are aghast at fellow believers’ willingness to ignore the Pope on matters like

contraception, blithely ignore in their turn papal pleas to renounce the death penalty (addressed most

recently to the McVeigh case). And I have not seen Bible-quoting fundamentalists refer to the one place in

the Gospels where Jesus deals with capital punishment. At John 8:3-11, he interrupts a legal execution

(for adultery) and tells the officers of the state that their own sinfulness deprives them of jurisdiction. Jesus

himself gives up any jurisdiction for this kind of killing: “Neither do I condemn you.” George W. Bush said

during the campaign debates of last year that Jesus is his favorite philosopher—though he did not

hesitate to endorse the execution of 152 human beings in Texas, where half of the public defenders of

accused murderers were sanctioned by the Texas bar for legal misbehavior or incompetence. Mr. Bush

clearly needs some deeper consultation with the philosopher of his choice.” New York Review of Books