ON July 14, 1989, I witnessed the execution of Horace Dunkins Jr. in the Alabama electric chair.
He was black, poor and somewhat retarded. Through years of correspondence and then visits, he had become a dear friend. A jury of 12 white women had found him guilty of the murder of Lynn McCurry, white, 26, mother of four.
A number of times that evening I thought about Lynn McCurry, about her terror and anguish. She had been tied to a tree, raped and then stabbed 66 times. I thought of her husband and those children left without their mother. Whether or not Horace was the murderer -- he denied to the last that he was -- I wanted to feel something of the ghastliness of what had been done to her and to those who loved her.
That night I could also sense the almost palpable evil in the air as prison staff pressed ahead to extinguish Horace's life. At no other time have I had such an intense experience of the presence of evil. (I had a similar feeling as I peered into Nazi gas chambers.) In the intentional killing of any human being is horror beyond comprehension.
The horror is, if anything, still greater when the killing, with total premeditation, is carried out by the state.
As the last possibilities for a stay of execution were exhausted, the movement toward the lethal act gathered momentum with the arrival of prison system dignitaries and their subordinates.
An execution requires one or more executioners. It has a dehumanizing impact on those who do the killing. Some of them rather easily become serial executioners.
That impact extends to the prison officials and guards who act out their roles in the ritual of taking a life. It extends to doctors. Two of them watched that night, went in to examine Horace after the first botched attempt at electrocuting him and then examined him again to pronounce him dead. Such doctors, instead of working for life against death, become accomplices in killing.
The dehumanization takes in governors and judges, persons with life-or-death power who decide for the death of one found guilty. Any such decision lessens the humanity of those who make it.
Some families of murder victims oppose the killing of the person who snuffed out the life of their loved one. Other such families are outspoken in calling for the execution of the one who has killed.
The latter reaction is natural and understandable. But those who express it are still dominated by the terrible deed. They seek a catharsis that killing the perpetrator cannot bring.
Any execution has a broader dehumanizing effect on the public. As I drove out from Holman Prison, many state patrol cars were parked at the entrance. There was a carnival atmosphere. Executions often draw together demonstrators who express their satisfaction with what is being done. But all citizens who affirm such a killing join as participants in it. Only because so many want an execution is it carried out.
In each of us is the lurking fascination with the power to kill. We live in a society vibrant with that fascination, as is evident on television. Yet so many factors, among them the frequency of murders, numb us to the horror involved in killing human beings.
If we are to defend our humanity against the forces that diminish it, we must cry out with murder victims and their families. We must seek to take in the dreadfulness of such killing.
But also for our humanity, we must see the horror of executions and cry out against that killing, too.
I witnessed it as Horace Dunkins sat strapped and immobilized, a black hood over his face. The generator hummed, his body shook and smoke rose from the seat of the electric chair.
The means of John Thanos' death would be different, the inhumanity of it the same.
Dale Aukerman is a writer living in Union Bridge.