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19 March 2018
NO, NO, OKLAHOMA!
The last time Oklahoma hogged the global limelight – to our admittedly limited knowledge – was in 1955 with the release of the musical “Oklahoma! ”directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones and with songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The film, wishy-washy hokum in which a cowpoke defeats rival and wins gal, was, nevertheless, a worldwide hit, dragging the state with it into the spotlights.
Thereafter Oklahoma slipped quietly from the global stage.
Now, however, the state is back on the front pages, this time attracting notoriety rather than innocent celebrity.
Despite being somewhat out in the sticks, Oklahoma has a lot of things going for it. Although the state has a population of only 4 million, it is a major producer of agricultural products, natural gas and oil and also boasts important aviation, energy, telecommunications and biotechnology industries. The area of the state is 181,295 km² – on a par with Uruguay or Syria.
However, Oklahoma excels in another field that it might not be so keep to boast about.
It executes more people per capita than any other state in the Union.
Of the 1469 judicial murders in the US since 1976 when the Supreme Court okayed the resumption of executions – suspended since an earlier Supreme Court decision of 1972 – top of the hit parade for killer states is Texas with 548 executions (population 22 million), Virginia (population 8.5 million) with 113 and Oklahoma (population 4 million) with 112.
In addition to that dubious distinction, Oklahoma was the first state in the Union to execute prisoners using a lethal cocktail of chemicals. Another first for the aptly nicknamed “S00ner State”.
Alas, owing to the increasing unpopularity of the death penalty in the civilised world, in recent years chemical firms used to supplying the ingredients for the lethal cocktail to US prisons have become reluctant to tarnish their public image by doing so.
In a recent press conference reported mid-March 2018 in the European media (including the London Guardian and El País of Madrid), Joe Albaugh, Director of the Oklahoma Corrections Department, said that in trying to find a supply of lethal drugs, he had been forced to deal with “seedy individuals” who might have had access to them.
“I was calling all around the world, to the back streets of the Indian subcontinent,” he said. To no avail. Hence, he argued, “we can no longer sit on the sidelines and wait on the drugs.”
However, all is not lost. The canny Okies are nothing if not resourceful. They have hit upon a new solution:
Yes, these folks may be a tad old-fogeyish, socially if not economically, but they sure stick to their guns. Their attitude to the 17 residents currently on death row in Oklahoma’s prisons is: “We’re gunna top these guys whatever it takes.”
The latest wheeze thought up by Oklahoma’s executioners is to kill the condemned men by gassing them with nitrogen till they choke to death.
Well done, fellas, what a swell idea!!
And if gassing passes the legal hurdles and goes ahead – according to media reports, the procedure has never been tested in a death chamber in the USA – this will be another first for Oklahoma in the grisly hit parade of US state executions.
One must feel sympathy for the squeamish Oklahoma prison boss who has had to liaise with “seedy inviduals” in the backstreets of India as he surreptitiously seeks out the lethal chemicals that will enable him to do his lawful job of killing people.
But who exactly are the “seedy individuals” in this scenario?
Is it the nameless backstreet vendors of illicit chemicals in India or is it rather the official representatives of a state from the world’s most powerful nation who are pulling out the stops to be allowed to choke human beings to death with nitrogen gas?
The Oklahoma authorities seem to believe that the shift from lethal injection to gas as the procedure for killing condemned prisoners is simply a matter of replacing one procedure with another: who cares what the mechanics of execution are, the point (from their perspective) is to find a trouble-free method of putting people to death.
In Europe, by contrast, the resort to gas as a method of snubbing out human beings touches the rawest of raw nerves.
Gas was the execution substance of choice when the Nazis systematically slaughtered 6 million Jews in World War II (1939-1945). Innocent men, women and children were suffocated en masse in the gas chambers of the Third Reich. In our view and that of many, the Holocaust – the genocidal carnage of Jews by Hitler’s thugs – was the greatest crime in the history of humanity.
The peoples of Europe are collectively determined that never again will such barbarity be allowed to stain the history of our continent.
This explains the utter revulsion of Europeans to the news that the state officials of Oklahoma are today planning to employ, once again, the methods used by the Nazis to stub out fellow human beings.
We admonish the state officers and elected representatives of the state of Oklahoma to hearken unto a celebrated plea made by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), leader of Parliament against the Crown in the English Civil War (1642-1646):
“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
From a letter sent by Cromwell to the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland on 3 August 1650.
Moreover, if this new ploy is thwarted as a result of fancy footwork by pettifogging liberal lawyers, there is an infinite range of other possibilities to which resort could be made.
In comments on an on-line article on the “gas them” story by Barbara Hoberock on 15 March in the Oklahoma newspaper Tulsa World, reader William Dusenberry, with tongue in cheek, says:
“If we used the Christian god’s preferred method of murdering our murderers, we could use the same torture device (the Christian cross) over and over again indefinitely.….Crucifixion is the way to go — it will deter murderers, and will pay for itself the first time a murderer is crucified in public – during the 1/2 time at a football game. Tourists will flock to watch “live” crucifixions, just as they flocked to the Roman Colosseum to watch live crucifixions and slaves being fed to the lions at the same time. In other words, using crucifixion in Oklahoma (public) would eliminate our deficit faster than all remaining non-political racists can become deplorable GOP baggers….If we executed murders in public by the use of crucifixion and charged admission, we could balance the Oklahoma State budget – and give our teachers a 50% raise.”
Incredible as it may seem, we have seen media reports recently which suggest that support for the death penalty – now, fortunately, on the decline overall both in the US and in the wider world – is exceptionally strong in states with a significant Evangelical Christian presence.
Or maybe Oklahoma could adopt the barbaric execution method preferred by the USA’s main Arab ally, Saudia Arabia – a fair number of whose nationals were involved in the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001 – and behead criminals before baying crowds in the streets? Somewhat like the auto-da-fé bonfires of heretics in Europe in the Middle Ages?
Only an idea. Just trying to be helpful.
“THOU SHALT NOT KILL”
This is verse 17 of Chapter 20 of the English translation of the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Old Testament [authorized King James English version of 1611]. It is one of the Ten Commandments said to have been communicated by God to the Hebrew prophet Moses on Mount Sinai.
Translation is not an exact science and the passage from one language to another often permits various renderings. Thus, some scholars nowadays prefer to translate the Hebrew verb in the above text as “murder” rather than “kill”.
However, in our view, this does not essentially alter the meaning of the text in our current context where what is involved is “judicial murder”.
In fact, the commandment seems to us to be straightforward and without ambiguity. It is an absolute order not subject to exceptions. For example, it does not say: “Thou shalt not kill, except in the case of killing approved by the state.” The text imposes a blanket ban on killing full stop.
It seems to us, therefore, that, at least so far as practising Jews or Christians are concerned, judicial execution is not permitted in any circumstances.
It is rightly argued that many of those legally condemned to death have themselves been proved in court to have committed heinous crimes, including murder. For our part, in no way do we seek to justify or downplay such acts of barbarity.
The main ground for refuting the justification of capital punishment is that two wrongs do not make a right. If it is wrong for the convicted criminal to commit murder, it is equally wrong for the state to avenge that crime by committing another of the same kind. The laws of ethics bind everyone – institutions as much as individuals.
However, there is another important reason for refraining from implementing the death penalty, namely the risk of error in the conviction. Given that in the case of the death penalty, the sentence is, literally, terminal, there is no possibility of reviewing the sentence later if subsequent evidence demonstrates that the conviction was unsafe. Accordingly, since the sentence in this case, once carried out, is unreviewable, it follows that the proof of guilt must be cast-iron – and not subject to modification should fresh evidence subsequently give rise to doubt. Now since all court judgements are, by their very nature, fallible and can never be considered the last word in assessing guilt or innocence, the emergence of new evidence always remaining a possibility, logically there can be no justification, in any circumstances, for the imposition of the death penalty.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Since 1973 at least 155 convicts have been released from death row in the United States on the grounds that their conviction was unsafe.
Quod erat demonstrandum.
There is a third reason to hold back from imposing the ultimate penalty. Not infrequently, the “mechanics” of executions go wrong and the condemned prisoner dies in agony.
According to a report in the London Guardian on 14 August 2018, Oklahoma has had one of the busiest death chambers in the US, but put executions on hold three years ago after a series of mishaps, including a botched lethal injection in 2014 that left inmate Clayton Lockett writhing on the gurney as well as drug mix-ups in 2015 in which the wrong lethal drugs were delivered. As a result, one inmate was executed with an unapproved drug and a second inmate was just moments away from being led to the death chamber before prison officials realized the same wrong drug had been delivered for his execution.
According to the newspaper, Oklahoma’s multicounty grand jury subsequently delivered a scathing report on Oklahoma’s lethal injection process that accused a number of individuals involved in the process of sloppy and careless work.
Moreover, what about the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution? This states:
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
According to the report already cited in the London Guardian, any attempt to change the method used to execute inmates in Oklahoma is certain to trigger a flurry of legal challenges. While the Oklahoma authorities maintain that inert gases are increasingly used in assisted suicides, several death penalty experts have retorted that the use of the nitrogen gas on unwilling subjects is entirely untested.
Dale Baich, an attorney representing Oklahoma death row prisoners, is quoted in the report as saying: “This method [the use of nitrogen gas] has never been used before and is experimental. How can we trust Oklahoma to get this right when the state’s recent history reveals a culture of carelessness and mistakes in executions?”
It is surprising to us that the US Federal Government allows individual states to decide whether to terminate the life of US citizens. One would have thought that all decisions pertaining to US citizenship, not least the permanent rubbing out of US citizens, would be an exclusively federal prerogative.
Besides, has the US so little concern for its standing in the world that it is happy to find itself way down there with the world’s bad guys?
GLOBAL EXECUTION STATS (2016)
Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, 141 are abolitionist in law or practice. Those that do not permit judicial executions include the 47 member states of the Council of Europe (among which all 28 member states of the European Union).
According to figures released by Amnesty International on 11 April 2017, at least 1,032 people were executed in 23 countries in 2016. The top killer nations were: China (1), Iran (2), Saudi Arabia (3), Iraq (4), Pakistan (5), Egypt (6) and the United States (7).
China remained the world’s top executioner – but the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown as these data are considered a state secret. The 2016 global figure of at least 1,032 executions excludes the thousands believed to have been carried out in China.
For the eighth consecutive year, the USA was the only country in North and South America to carry out executions in 2016.
To us, it is incredible that the world’s number one superpower cares so little for its standing among the nations of the world that it is happy to be lumped alongside such stalwart champions of human rights as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.
Our own view is that no nation which permits judicial murder can be regarded as civilised.
Nonetheless, there has been a global improvement in recent years.
The 20 people executed in the US in 2016 – eight fewer than in 2015 – was the lowest number of executions recorded in a single year since 1991. Moreover, the rate of executions in the US in 2016 is half that in 2007 and a third of that in 1997. However, the latest decline may be due to the difficulty of accessing chemicals for lethal injection.
There has also been a global decline in the number of executions in recent years. In 2016 twenty-three countries are known to have actually carried out executions. This number has decreased significantly over the last two decades: 40 countries carried out executions in 1997.
The US state of Oklahoma was created in 1907 partly from territory used in 19 C as a dumping-ground for “Red Indians” deported from their ancestral land in other parts of the United States. The state name derives from “okla humma” meaning “red people” in Chocktaw.
So far as politics are concerned, Oklahoma has traditionally been a red-neck (conservative) state. Its Governor Mary Fallin is a Republican and its Senate and House of Representatives are both Republican-controlled. This tilt towards the right is no surprise as Oklahoma is situated in the southern Mid-West and wide-open to contagion from the hold-the-clock-back culture of adjacent former Confederate slave states that tried to secede from the Union in 1861-1865.
We conclude with a warning from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900):
“….misstraut Allen, in welchen der Trieb, zu strafen, mächtig ist! Das ist Volk schlechter Art und Abkunft; aus ihren Gesichtern blickt der Henker und der Spürhund. Misstraut allen Denen, die viel von ihrer Gerechtigkeit reden! Wahrlich, ihren Seelen fehlt es nicht nur an Honig. Und wenn sie sich selber ‘die Guten und Gerechten’ nennen, so vergesst nicht, dass ihnen zum Pharisäer Nichts fehlt….”
- “…..distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful! They are a low sort of people from bad stock; out of their countenances peer the hangman and the sleuth-hound. Distrust all those who talk much of their justice! Verily, in their souls it is not only honey that is lacking. And when they call themselves ‘the good and just,’ forget not, that for them to be Pharisees nothing is lacking…”
This is a quotation (slightly truncated) from Part II (Chapter 29: “The Tarantulas”) of the treatise “Also sprach Zarathustra” (published between 1883 and 1892).
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
- Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
- Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
- The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
- Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
- Ladder (21 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
- Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.