Should the death penalty include abject suffering?

Headlines are being made about the suffering possibly endured by convicted murderer Dennis McGuire, who was put to death with a new and previously untried method by the state of Ohio on Jan. 16 as punishment for his killing of a pregnant woman years earlier. The state used a chemical injection never before utilized to put someone to death, despite warnings from some medical experts who said that the process might produce what was called “air starvation.”

NBC News quoted an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution who wrote that McGuire, 53, “appeared to gasp several times and made several loud snorting or snoring sounds during a ‘prolonged’ execution,” which several news agencies said took nearly 26 minutes from start to finish. Other witnesses said that Mr. McGuire also clenched his fists repeatedly, and tried in vain to raise himself up from the table to which he was strapped, apparently gasping for air.

In short, it did not appear to be a peaceful death — leaving many to ask: Is paying with his life enough of a punishment for someone sentenced to death for a killing…or is it acceptable for that punishment to include abject end-of-life suffering and agony for nearly a half hour?

Yet the main question has been avoided through all the news stories and commentaries on this particular event: Is the death penalty itself appropriate in an enlighted society?

Our answer is no. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, we are not going to solve society’s problems using the same energy that created them. We will not put an end to violence by using violence, an end to anger with anger, and an end to killing with more killing.

All we as a people are saying is that killing is perfectly okay when we believe that “right’ is on our side. But of course — with exceptions for those who are mentally incapacitated — all people and all governments thinks “right” is on their side when they kill, or they wouldn’t and couldn’t do it.

The central question then becomes: Is it ever “right” to kill people if one’s own life (or the life of others) is not in immediate danger?

A man in Florida, a former police captain, pulled out a gun and killed another man with whom he was having an argument over texting in a movie theatre because the other man threw a bag of popcorn at him, and the former police officer said he thought the other man was going to attack him. (Why he didn’t simply pull out the gun and say, “Not one step further….”, rather than shoot the man point blank in the chest from four feet away is not clear.) So now, once again in Florida, we are going to have a chance to see if that state’s Stand Your Ground law is going to be applied to justify killing someone.

Yet the question in this quarter is not, “What does the law say?” And not even, “What does our culture in general say?” But rather, “What does the Soul say?”

What does your Soul say? What do you believe is justification for killing someone? And if you agree that the State should have the right to kill someone because that person killed another — should the State’s execution include abject suffering?

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