Saturday, September 24, 2011

Staking a Life by Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens is such a sweet writer on all manner of subjects, but now as then I could never come to terms with his alignment with Bush and the Neocons. Even though he talks about it in the interview below, his reasoning is still totally beyond me.

Can't have everything I guess.

For those that have never seen, or known of, Jeremy Paxman's recent interview of Hitchens, you will find it embedded below.

Staking a Life by Christopher Hitchens

Arthur Koestler opened his polemic against capital punishment in Britain by saying that the island nation was that quaint and antique place where citizens drove on the left hand side of the road, drank warm beer, made a special eccentricity of the love of animals, and had felons “hanged by the neck until they are dead.” Those closing words—from the formula by which a capital sentence was ritually announced by a heavily bewigged judge—conveyed in their satisfyingly terminal tones much of the flavor and relish of the business of judicially inflicted death.

The last hanging in Britain occurred in 1964. Across the channel in France, the peine de mort was done away with by the Mitterrand administration in the early 1980s. So the two great historic homelands of theatrical capital punishment—conservative Britain with its “bloody code” and exemplary gibbetings described by Dickens and Thackeray, and Jacobin France with its humanely utilitarian instrument of swift justice for feudalism promoted by the good Doctor Guillotin—have both dispensed with the ultimate penalty. The reasoning was somewhat different in each case. In Britain there had been considerable queasiness as a consequence of a number of miscarriages of justice that had led to the hanging of the innocent. In France, in the memorable words of Mitterrand’s Minister of Justice, M. Robert Badinter, the scaffold had come to symbolize “a totalitarian concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state.”

Since then no country has been allowed to apply for membership or association with the European Union without, as a precondition, dismantling its apparatus of execution. This has led states like Turkey to forego what was once a sort of national staple. The United Nations condemns capital punishment—especially for those who have not yet reached adulthood—and the Vatican has come close to forbidding if not actually anathematizing the business. This leaves the United States of America as the only nation in what one might call the West, that does not just continue with the infliction of the death penalty but has in the recent past expanded its reach. More American states have restored it in theory and carried it out in practice, and the last time the Supreme Court heard argument on the question it was to determine whether capital punishment should be inflicted for a crime other than first-degree murder (the rape of a child being the suggested pretext for extension).

To be in the company of Iran and China and Sudan as a leader among states conducting execution—and to have pioneered the medicalized or euthanized form of it that is now added to the panoply of gassing, hanging, shooting, and electrocution and known as “lethal injection”—is to have invited the question why. Why is the United States so wedded to the infliction of the death penalty? I have heard a number of suggested answers: two in particular have some superficial plausibility. The first is an old connection between executions and racism, and the second is the relatively short distance in time that separates the modern U.S. from the days of frontier justice.

Now it is true that you are very much more likely to be put to death by the state if you are a black person who has murdered a white person than you are if that condition is stated in reverse. Indeed, it was this disparity among others that led to the practice being suspended so widely for so long. And it is also true that the business of execution is carried on more enthusiastically and more systematically in the states of the former Confederacy. On both the occasions when I myself have visited death row, once in Mississippi and once in Missouri, the historic Dixie stench that surrounded the proceedings was absolutely unmistakable. Bill Clinton’s 1992 execution of the mentally disabled black man Ricky Ray Rector—at a strategic moment in the evolution of the red-faced governor of Arkansas into the trustworthy figure of an “electable” neoliberal— was the closest thing to a straight-out lynching that has been seen in the past generation. But traditional bigotries do not explain why the penalty has lately been restored in New York and California, and why a Federal execution “facility” has been built in Terre Haute, Indiana, birthplace of Eugene Debs (and used as a launching pad from which to kick the ultrawhite Timothy McVeigh off the planet).

Our historic proximity to the wild-and-woolly days of yore won’t quite elucidate the phenomenon either. Europe in the last few decades saw a very great deal more violence and chaos on its own soil than any American has ever had to witness on home turf, even at Antietam or in the Wilderness campaign; yet there isn’t a gallows left between Lisbon and the Urals. “Terrorism”—the gravamen of the charge against McVeigh and the excuse for Clinton’s post-Oklahoma City “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act”—doesn’t quite cut it either. Israel is much more frequently and savagely hit by indiscriminate attacks on its civilians, and it does not have resort to the death penalty.

It took me some time to notice where this process of elimination was leading me. For example, as I once found myself arguing, the state of Michigan has a provision in its founding constitution that forbids capital punishment. Yet high as the rate of violent crime is in Michigan, it is not noticeably worse than in neighboring and somewhat comparable Illinois (where former Governor George Ryan was not long ago compelled to impose a moratorium on execution, it having been discovered that there were more innocent than guilty people on the state’s death row. You know how that can upset people….) Thus, as I was going on to argue, there is no reason to suppose that the death penalty is a deterrent. And then it hit me. I had been hammering on an open door. Nobody had been bothering to argue that the rope or the firing squad, or the gas chamber, or “Old Sparky” the bristle-making chair, or the deadly catheter were a deterrent. The point of the penalty was that it was death. It expressed righteous revulsion and symbolized rectitude and retribution. Voila tout! The reason why the United States is alone among comparable countries in its commitment to doing this is that it is the most religious of those countries. (Take away only China, which is run by a very nervous oligarchy, and the remaining death-penalty states in the world will generally be noticeable as theocratic ones.) Go to page three.

For further links, see comments.


Anonymous said...

"... but let’s say we don’t know enough to say it’s impossible. I would say what is impossible is that other humans can know what the conditions are whereby you qualify for survival, that I do know is false." (Christopher Hitchens)*

In a nutshell, thanks for posting Himself.

*on some belief in a possibility of this not being the end.

Himself said...

Yes indeed, I think that was the definitive statement of the interview.

It's amazing how many people can tell you exactly what God has on his mind.

Isn't it odd though, that the majority of God's spokesmen just happen to be American?

IE Pat Robertson Jerry Falwell (RIP)

It's very hard to find, but when Falwell croaked, it was Hitchens that described Falwell's ''putrefying carcass'' or some such, on Fox News. Shock horror from the jesoids!

Which reminds me of something else, let me see if I can find it.

Himself said...

No I can't find what I had in mind, so here are a few short clips that you can pick the bones out.

Himself said...

The discovery of the carcass of Jerry Falwell on the floor of an obscure office in Virginia has almost zero significance, except perhaps for two categories of the species labeled "credulous idiot." The first such category consists of those who expected Falwell (and themselves) to be bodily raptured out of the biosphere and assumed into the heavens, leaving pilotless planes and driverless trucks and taxis to crash with their innocent victims as collateral damage. This group is so stupid and uncultured that it may perhaps be forgiven. It is so far "left behind" that almost its only pleasure is to gloat at the idea of others being abandoned in the same condition.

Himself said...

Falwell's Views of Hatred

As a "Reverend", Falwell has made it a point to air his vitriol whenever and wherever he seems fit, and this includes broadcasting networks, Christian networks, and his favorite pulpit.

Making full use of the title of "Reverend", he managed to smuggle his big fat ass into almost every secular broadcasting network to spread his otherwise unspeakable banter.

Chief amongst Falwell's Agenda:

1. Getting rid of secularity of the Constitution, which would effectively push his evangelist propaganda as a National religious movement.

2. Marginalizing gays (Calling them brute beasts), atheists and everyone else who doesn't toe the biblical/evangelistic line.

3. In his early years at his Thomas Rd Baptist Church, Falwell was prone to lampooning black Civil Rights Movements......