The Illusion of "Humane" Killing

In the relationship between Europe and the U.S., the same friction points have been the cause of irritation for years. Different views on the use of military force or the extraterritorial application of American law are persistent sources of transatlantic tensions. But hardly anything gives rise to such a feeling of mutual difference on an emotional level as the topic of the death penalty. The fact that it still forms part of the American justice system is met with incomprehension and even revulsion in Europe. It is notable that European criticism of the U.S. is louder than criticism of countries such as China and Iran, where executions are much more common. This application of double standards can be easily explained by European sensitivities. On the old continent people are, correctly, proud to have eradicated the death penalty everywhere—with the exception of Belarus—and consider it to be incompatible with the practices of civilized countries. The fact that highly-developed, democratic constitutional states such as the U.S. and Japan don’t share this view hurts like a thorn in the flesh. It is a reminder that what are proclaimed as the norms of a civilized world are by no means undisputed outside the borders of one’s own country.

A Clause with Consequences

To declare oneself a shining example and accuse others of barbarism is not very helpful in this situation. Something else is turning out to be unexpectedly effective here. In 2011, the EU issued export restrictions for two barbiturates which are used in injections at executions. Since these narcotics are not produced in the U.S., the authorities there are now confronted with supply shortages. Several states have been forced to think about their methods of execution or to test new toxic cocktails. The prolonged agony of two people who were executed using untested substances has caused a stir and re-ignited the debate about the death penalty. Several commentators have pointed out that such incidents are against the American Constitution, which forbids “cruel and unusual” punishments.

But it would be wrong to believe that the decisive impulse for the debate came from abroad. In reality, support for the death penalty in the U.S. has been decreasing for years. At 55-60 percent, supporters are still in the majority, but this number is the lowest it has been in 40 years. The change is also reflected in law enforcement. In the mid-1990s, the death penalty was imposed four times more often; since then the number of executions has fallen sharply. One reason for this development is the fact that many states have introduced the possibility of life sentences without the option of parole as an alternative to the death penalty.

No Deterrent Effect

It is of fundamental importance that today, four decades after the reintroduction of the death penalty, the counter-arguments are clearer than ever: a deterrent effect of executions cannot be proved; there is still a considerable risk of death sentences being given to innocent people because of failings in the legal system; studies indicate that racial prejudices play a role in the imposition of the maximum sentence; the costs of administering the death penalty are exorbitant. A video report from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung about conditions in Texas sheds light on what it is like for the families: For the family of the condemned, a death sentence means many years of suffering; conversely, the victim’s family is by no means helped when the state takes deadly revenge for the crime in their name.

After the “botched” executions in Ohio and Oklahoma, another argument is coming into focus. It is an illusion to expect that an acceptable, humane form of killing carried out by the state can ever be found. Lethal injections, which have prevailed as a supposedly “cleaner” solution than the electric chair, can have even crueler consequences than more archaic methods. Where the debate in the U.S. is now headed remains open. The trend is pointing in the right direction. Eighteen out of 50 states have abolished the death penalty; six of these have done so since 2007. Today executions are mainly a phenomenon in a handful of Southern states, while the Northeast has moved away from them. In this respect, there is not just a gulf in attitudes about the death penalty between Europe and the U.S., but also within American society. Historical experience shows that such contradictions do not disappear overnight. In Switzerland, 70 years elapsed after the first Cantons abolished the death penalty until the last guillotine fell in 1940.

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