Bill Barr Turns On The Execution Machine

Ken Piorkowski [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

So Bill Barr has ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to start scheduling executions again. This article on Vox covers the political and logistical points very well. A quick search on the topic will yield numerous points and counterpoints on the subject of the death penalty.

I find this event notable for the quiet conflict within the administration that few are talking about. On the one hand, Trump has nominated two Supreme Court Justices that are primed for overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark court case that made abortions legal up to 20 weeks. We just know that Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch are waiting for that one case, ripe for the picking, as abortion laws written out of supreme spite will eventually make their way to the high court. Those abortion laws claim that every life is precious.

On the other hand, this turn in the Trump Administration says that not every life is so precious. As the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons start teeing up executions, I wonder if they considered this quandary. How can every life be precious yet it’s OK to execute someone for a heinous crime?

No doubt that the first five inmates scheduled for execution have been accused and convicted of terrible crimes. All were convicted of multiple murders with aggravation. If the point of prison is to make the villain suffer, has anyone in the Trump Administration stopped to consider that death ends all suffering?

Each one of those inmates has been suffering in prison for years, thinking about what they did, with recurring nightmares about what they did. Maybe they even spent time considering the possibility that they could have made a choice to do something else on that fateful day that they committed their horrible, horrible crimes? Isn’t that suffering enough? But if you end their lives, well, that’s the end of their suffering for sure.

Now some “believers” may say that those inmates will go to Hell upon death. It is one thing to say that a murderer will go to hell upon his or her death. It is quite another to be the one to decide who goes to hell. And as far I know, there is only one entity in Christian mythology with the power to make that decision. That would be God. And He did say something like, well, He’s been quoted to say that, “Vengeance is mine!” No one really knows for sure if God said that. And if we knew for sure that he did, wouldn’t that sort of undercut any authority assumed by a puny human to claim a right to take the life of another human?

And no amount of execution activity will make any of the next of kin whole again. The family members will still cry as they watch the murderer fry, bake or suffer the pain of being unable to breathe, feeling their heart stop, and watch their life pass their eyes in the seven minutes after blood stops circulating through their brains. There is no pop quiz for the villain after they finally do die. And there is no real consolation for the family members left behind. Their loved one is still dead and, as far as we know, will never return to this plane again.

The Vox article cited above notes that some of the companies that make the lethal injection drugs used for execution have coordinated efforts to either withhold distribution of their drugs for use in executions or have stopped the manufacture of lethal drugs altogether. They did so for ethical reasons. Do those ethical reasons trump the religious rights of the grieving families to see their villain die?

Oh, wait a minute. Is there a religious right or justification for execution? Probably not, at least, not for Christians, subscribers to the dominant religion in America. Wikipedia sheds some light on the subject of Christianity and the death penalty:

Christianity has changed its perspective on the death penalty over time and different Christian denominations have different teachings on it. Many early Christians were strongly opposed to the death penalty and magistrates who enforced it could be excommunicated. Attitudes gradually began to relax in the fifth century. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas argued that capital punishment was a form of “lawful slaying”, which became the standard Catholic teaching on the issue for centuries. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin defended the death penalty, but Quakers, Brethren, and Mennonites have opposed it since their founding. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has generally opposed the death penalty and, in August 2018, Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to explicitly condemn it in all cases, as an inadmissible attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person. (emphasis mine)

So for most of modern history, Christianity has been opposed to the death penalty. I wonder how a good chunk of Trump’s base squares their Evangelical beliefs with Bill Barr’s actions of late. Do they have any existential angst over it? Do they believe in “an eye for an eye”? Or do they believe in “live and let live”?

Does Trump’s base really believe in “the inviolability and dignity of the person”? Sure, if they haven’t been born yet. After they’re born, not so much. Speaking of Trump’s base, I have to wonder if the change in execution policy at the Justice Department is more about appealing to the base than actual executions. The drugs for executions are getting harder and harder to find. The trends for executions over the last few decades have been going down, down, down. Execution is not polling well. And God knows how many trees will die in the appeals process as challenges to executions will most certainly rise again.

According to the Justice Departments “Justice News” from their Office of Public Affairs, “Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” Attorney General Barr said. “Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding. The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.” Emphasis is mine.

Who is “we”? I don’t think Mr. Barr speaks for me. Or for that matter, most people. Perhaps it’s time that Mr. Trump takes notice of what’s going on around the country that he purports to make so great again.

Write on.

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