There are no pull quotes to be found in Norman Mailer’s thousand-page tome to the American cult of Thanatos, The Executioner’s Song. The prose is as sparse and flat as the High Plains on which the story unfolds. Joan Didion, reviewing it in the New York Times, said that the language resembled conversations overheard in a K-Mart.
It was a fitting style in which to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which tells the story of Gary Gilmore, who murdered two people in cold blood in Utah and then spent years fighting for his own execution. He eventually succeeded. Gilmore was killed by firing squad in 1977. He was the first person in America to suffer capital punishment after the Supreme Court basically shelved the death penalty in 1972. While on death row, Gilmore attempted suicide twice.
The Executioner’s Song works in mythic inverse to Kerouac’s On The Road. Instead of an everyman hitchhiker questing for meaning, we have the killer on the road, the nihilist stranger. But it’s also a historical document, of sorts, as the most literary account of the return of the death penalty to America.
This same admixture of myth and history is presently at work in the High Plains as the Nebraska state legislature overturns its own death penalty. The first “conservative” state to do so, only a coalition of Democrats and Republicans working together made the repeal possible. The complex philosophical quandaries raised by capital punishment make it a bipartisan issue, and its national suspension and subsequent return in the 70s attests to its mercurial legal status. Why one opposes the death penalty matters. Any opposition that’s based on the application of capital punishment—which drugs are used, who gets killed, how the legal apparatii of death row are administered—will have to shift with the circumstances as they change. So why one is opposed to the death penalty can be just as important as if one is. Are the Republicans in Nebraska right for the wrong reasons?
There are compelling arguments for and against capital punishment as a deterrent to murder, all of which seem to contradict each other. There’s an Emory University study here saying that every execution prevents eighteen subsequent murders. There’s a study there saying that there isn’t a deterrent effect at all. And of course there are the shocking numbers of people being exonerated from death row by The Innocence Project—which seems intimately connected to the racial disparity with which capital punishment is administered.
These are the usual points of departure for having a real conversation about the death penalty. But the Republicans in Nebraska seem to be taking a different track altogether.
Marc Hyden, the national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, one of the many groups that pushed for repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska, recently told Al Jazeera, “This is what conservatives do. We repeal government programs that are wasteful and ineffective.”
Other groups and writers echoed the emphasis on the cost of administering the death penalty and the entire capital punishment apparatus as a kind of irresponsible fiscal policy. Daniel Bier of The Foundation for Economic Education said, “Other states should follow Nebraska’s lead and abolish the expensive, ineffective, and inefficient policy that puts life and death in government’s hands.” Nebraska state senator Colby Coash told MSNBC, “We’re lying to our constituency when we say that it’s an effective tool when it hasn’t been used in twenty years. It’s been expensive and hasn’t been used, it won’t be used and doesn’t need to be in the statute.”
This is a troubling line of argument, treating the death penalty as if it were just another form of government waste gunking up the clean functioning of civil society. Framing the argument in a context of “efficiency” pushes moral considerations completely out of the frame of debate and caters to the most hedonistic aspects of a sort of cheap pragmatism—the American Cult of “Common Sense.”
Shari Silberstein of Equal Justice USA gave an interesting quote that asks for a thought experiment, “A lot of people who vote for repeal are not opposed to the death penalty theoretically, but if you ask them if they support the death penalty as it works now, they do not. As a philosophical concept they think the death penalty is fine and as a practical reality, they think it’s a mess.”
Imagine a sci-fi future in which it’s possible to tell with 100-percent accuracy if someone is guilty of a capital crime. The appeals process is streamlined and inmates wait on death row only a few days before they’re cheaply, efficiently, and painlessly executed. In this world, is the death penalty okay?
According to the logic of conservatives monomaniacally focused on efficiency, yes.
The efficiency argument being made in Nebraska is the logical manifestation of an essentially hedonistic system of reasoning, the idea that what’s morally correct and what’s useful are in essence identical. Gary Gilmore’s last words before he was shot in the chest by a firing squad might as well be the hedonistic dictum of the American utilitarian: “Let’s do it.” Or not, depending on what works.