I’ve recently been re-reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. The passage where Prince Myshkin discusses the guillotine — echoing Dostoyevsky’s own experience of nearly being executed — is a sobering reminder of the horrors involved.
They put a man inside a frame and a sort of broad knife falls by machinery — they call the thing a guillotine — it falls with fearful force and weight — the head bounces off before you can blink an eye. But all the preparations are so dreadful ...Extending the logic of this a little — though I am not suggesting Dostoyevsky would necessarily have agreed — it seems to me the ‘humane’ argument supposedly in favour of administering a lethal injection (with an audience watching) may be one of those pseudo-rational lines of reasoning favoured by technocrats, which leave crucial elements of psychology out of the equation.
Now with the rack and tortures and so on — you suffer terrible pain; but your torture is bodily pain, until you die, and that distracts you from your inner torment. Whereas here I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all — but the certain knowledge that in an hour, — then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now — this very instant — your soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man — and that this is certain, certain! That’s the point — the certainty of it.
Critics of Utah’s decision appear not to be arguing that shooting is more ‘cruel and unusual’ than injection, but rather claim it is “barbaric”. Yet the fact that it seems to contain a greater element of uncertainty — that it is not as carefully designed to proceed by inexorable mechanics as coercive injection — may be in its favour.
If facing the death penalty myself, I should certainly want the option of firing squad available. It seems a marginally less degrading and claustrophobic way to go.
Oxford Forum should be given funding.