Killing time

My daughter, Kara, who covers prisoners on death row for the TV network, GMA-7, anxiously sat in the van that was taking her to the New Bilibid Prisons.  In a few minutes, prison officials were to raffle the media slots for the January 30 executions.  But there she was, hopelessly strapped to a seat, in the middle of traffic, killing time.  An early morning accident held vehicles at a standstill on the South Luzon Expressway.  Her bosses would be furious if the network did not win a seat in the viewing room of the lethal injection chamber.

As fate would have it, she didn’t make it to the raffle. Relatives of the convicts, Roberto Lara and Roderick Licayan, had wanted her so much to sit with them during the execution. They had noted the quiet compassion of her reports and offered to bring her in as a member of the family. She herself had taken an instant liking to these unschooled peasants who had run out of tears pleading for the lives of their loved ones.  She was frantic when she found she had missed the raffle, but something else in her mysteriously rejoiced.

Later that evening, I told her she was lucky to have been spared from a potentially brutalizing experience whose long-term effects on her sensibility as a journalist would be hard to predict.  The main reason, I said, executions began to be withdrawn from the public square and conducted in the privacy of the death chamber was not so much to preserve the dignity of the condemned as to protect the humanity of the public. I don’t know why you should jostle for a seat in that room, I said.  It is never a privilege nor can it be an agreeable experience for a normal person to watch the meticulous killing of another human being.

Yet over the years, advocates of capital punishment have tried to make the deed acceptable by making it more humane, more quick, and painless.  This misplaced concern has only fueled the search for more efficient killing contraptions; it hasn’t made judicial executions less violent or more moral.

For a long time, the death penalty was synonymous with the electric chair.  Electricity was the epitome of technological progress at the turn of the 20th century.  It was logical that the quest for technological sophistication in executing condemned persons would stumble upon electricity as an efficient and humane means of carrying out the capital punishment.  It was the famous inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, the developer of the DC or direct current system, who aggressively espoused the use of electricity as a modern means of executing people.  This is a fascinating story of how science and technology is implicated in social policy debates, and how nations still their moral doubts by reducing them to technological problems.

A wonderful little book written by Richard Moran, a professor of sociology in a small American college, carefully documents the hidden forces that led to the invention of the electric chair.  The thesis of “Executioner’s Current” (2002) is that back in the late 1880s, Thomas Edison tried to discredit his rival in the growing electric power industry, George Westinghouse, by depicting the latter’s product, AC or alternating current, as a dangerous form of electricity to have around the house.  He wanted AC to be known as the “executioner’s current” by pairing it with the electric chair.  The result: the AC-powered electric chair became the executioner’s choice almost everywhere in America, but it did not prevent AC from also becoming the current of choice throughout the modern world.

Civilized nations that imagined themselves humane by using the electric chair to carry out the death penalty later gave up this killing machine in favor of the lethal injection.  In truth, the use of poison to stop human life is as old as Socrates.  What has made it more palatable as today’s favorite method of execution is its guarantee of swiftness and painlessness.  The gore that sometimes accompanied death by the electric chair is supposed to have been completely eliminated in lethal injection.

In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth, says Moran, who was moved to write his book after witnessing the execution of a man in Texas by lethal injection.  The gore is gone, he writes, but the horror remains.  “I had expected to observe the execution, but did not expect to be observed.  The condemned man looked right at me.

Only a few feet separated us.  I was afraid he would try to touch me… . I was ashamed – ashamed for being there and afraid that he would ask something of me.  I was an intruder, the only member of the public who had intruded on this private moment of anguish.  In my face, he could see the horror of his own death…. Turning toward us, he said, ‘I hope that one day we can look back on the evil that we are doing right now like we do the witches when they were burned at the stake.’”

A split Supreme Court vote recently gave Lara and Licayan a onemonth reprieve so their cases can be looked into more closely. Perhaps the venerable justices can begin by asking how it is possible for these unsophisticated promdis to have played more than a marginal role in the daring city abduction of their Chinese-Filipino victims.  No one has been able to identify or capture the masterminds, the ones who had the cunning and organization to carry out a methodical crime.  It is not difficult to imagine that the two condemned young men had absolutely no idea who they were.  Must the knife of a faulty police system be allowed to carve its pound of flesh from their bodies?

I hope that one day we can all look back on the barbarity of what we are doing.


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