Last month, on July 14th, the United States ended a seventeen-year pause on federal executions and put Daniel Lewis Lee to death, strapping him to a gurney in expectation of a federal court’s decision to end the stay on his execution. Using a new single-drug injection procedure of solely pentobarbital, he was executed with an expired death warrant and pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. EST in Terre Haute, Indiana. Previously, all federal executions had been stayed pending the review of the single-drug procedure, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the injunction and the Bureau of Prisons wasted no time carrying out the sentence originally handed down on May 4, 1999.
The machinery of the state is never more efficient, absurd, and inhuman than it is in dealing death. Every legal and moral framework crafted as the veneer of a civilized world ends with the terrible silence of death. Forget for a moment that the death penalty has been shown to be an ineffective deterrent that, in fact, promotes violent crime. Set aside that victims’ families commonly request clemency for the executed (and are denied, like they had been in Lee’s case). Ignore that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remarked that she had “yet to see a death case, among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications, in which the defendant was well represented at trial.” Even in a fantasy case which the most ardent death-hawk fabricates solely to concoct a textbook capital example, there can be no compelling interest for the state in killing an incarcerated human being.
In the 1968 Japanese film Death by Hanging, director Nagisa Oshima explores the absurdity of state executions through the medium of a botched execution. Upon commencement of the execution, the prisoner miraculously survives the hanging but is afflicted with a curious case of total amnesia. The various characters assembled in the execution chamber are forced to justify, both to each other and to the person they had just executed, the nature of his crime and the supposed righteousness of his sentence (hoping this exercise will clear their consciences for when they execute him a second time). The prisoner fails to accept the totality of the nation-state and demands his release, so the executioners oblige. When the prisoner exits the execution chamber he sees the outside world for the first time and comprehends the reality of life as a man sentenced to die and accepts the execution as the non-choice of “life” under the total state.
Today, 56 countries retain the legal practice of capital punishment, with twenty countries conducting executions since 2018. (The United States often conducts executions under state statutes as opposed to federal statutes.) After hastily executing Lee, the United States conducted two more federal executions in July, with two scheduled in each August and September of this year as well. The effect of the death penalty is not to deter violent crime or provide some perverse retribution for victimized persons. Capital punishment serves as a method of control over the general population, ensuring that the state will exact the ultimate revenge on its people, if it so chooses.
In the case of Daniel Lewis Lee and every other killing by the state, numerous people must make the affirmative choice to engage in bureaucratic murder. Like the various executioners in Death by Hanging, by existing in the universe where death remains legally sanctioned as the final privilege of the state, we become complicit in the machinery of death whenever we allow an execution to continue. Either we can join with the state in this act of terror or take on the burden facing Oshima’s prisoner when he looks upon the nation-state and understands what it is to be condemned to die. Either the state must die or he must. Seeing death in those terms makes the path forward clear and the steady stream of scheduled executions only makes it more urgent. To prevent the absurdity of state killing we must end the state now and dismantle the machinery of death.