Capital Punishment, Capital Passion

'ASTA BOWEN

January 08, 1993|By 'ASTA BOWEN

FOREST GROVE, OREGON. — Forest Grove, Oregon -- After much controversy, the state of Washington has executed Westley Allan Dodd, who confessed to the 1989 murder of three boys. Dodd not only wanted to hang but vowed, given the chance, to kill and rape again. The ACLU argued that death by hanging is cruel and unusual punishment, but the court ruled with the state, which called it a ''swift and humane'' means of execution.

While this contest was taking place, halfway across the country in Chicago medical doctors were taking a stand against a new federal regulation requiring them to assist in executions that use lethal injection. Five professional groups, including the American Medical Association, objected that ''such participation is forbidden by the Hippocratic Oath and by our professional ethics and standards of behavior.''

In Washington, there was Westley Allan Dodd, ready to slip a waxy noose over his head and fall 7 1/3 feet through a trap door; in Chicago, there were leaders of the nation's top medical organizations fighting to stay out of the execution business because of the moral oath that commits physicians to ''above all, do no harm.''

Is execution humane or harmful? The state of Washington, and in this case the prisoner himself, found it humane. Doctors asked to carry out such punishment find it harmful. Efforts to resolve the question once and for all, like the ACLU appeal, wind up on a moral merry-go-round; we require scientific proof of suffering, but suffering is not scientific. We apply our laws of evidence and logic, but the spirit of the thing evades us. Our passions run high, but passion is not admissible in court.

Capital punishment is not a logical response to a logical problem. It is a complex, human response to a complex, human problem, and the sooner we come to grips with the complexity, the sooner we are likely to find real resolutions to our questions.

We say the death penalty deters crime, but deterrence has not been proved. So we say, thriftily, that execution saves money -- tens of thousands of dollars for every year the convict would have been kept in prison. But for every prisoner put to death, a hundred more remain in the state's expensive care. If our motives were fiscal, executions would be as routine and matter-of-fact as they are at the dog pound.

Capital punishment satisfies no logical purpose; what it serves is an emotional purpose. The death penalty is as much an act of passion as the crimes it answers. But in our society, feeling is taboo; the deepest emotions, the feelings that drive our deepest convictions, can only be expressed in rational, logical terms: Cost. Deterrence. We cannot acknowledge that capital punishment serves as ritual slaughter, a statement of societal values and a warning to any who violate them. Instead, we talk about the texture of the noose and calculate how far a 138-pound man must fall in order for his neck to break.

We cannot admit that execution works as an emotional lighting rod by which we discharge our grief and helplessness: grief, in Dodd's case, over the grisly murders of three boys; helplessness to prevent the next murder. So we appoint solemn witnesses to register the death from behind a plastic window.

Capital punishment is both humane and hurtful. It is humane for the parents sleeping easier, and for prisoners who prefer hanging to living hell. Capital punishment is hurtful to convicts who do not want to die, and to their families; it is a moral assault on the medical community and on other citizens who cannot accept the logic of killing people who kill people to prove that killing people is wrong.

One thing is certain: the measure of hurt and harm will never be proven in court. It will only be felt -- and felt deeply.

'Asta Bowen is a writer and teacher from northwest Montana.

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