01 May 2008

A Thorn by Any Other Name

In their new book, Death by a Thousand Cuts, Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon, and Gregory Blue write about a trait shared by Americans and Chinese to this day: we execute human beings. The Chinese used to do it by way of lingchi, slicing off limbs and pieces of flesh. They stopped the practice in 1905.

In the United States today, we mix a cocktail of poison and inject it into people's veins. A week ago the Supreme Court said that's not a bad way to kill a criminal. It doesn't sound so bad as the Chinese method, though the Chinese used to temper the punishment by sedating the criminal with opium, and killing him or her long before lopping off the last ounce of flesh.

We sedate the criminals we kill, too -- at least we think we do. One of three liquids used in our lethal cocktails is supposed to dull the pain of death. Maybe it does, but why so much screaming and contorted and writhing expressions on some of the ones we kill?

The Supreme Court said it isn't cruel. Certainly not like the old Chinese way; certainly not like the disemboweling and dismembering Western nations used to practice, until one by one they gave up killing by any fashion, leaving the United States alone still trying to find a perfect way for the government to take the life of a helpless man or woman or, sometimes, boy or girl.

The authors say of the comparative methods of slaughter, "It is hard to see much distinction in degrees of cruelty." It is hard to see much honor in it, either.