John Thanos, our new 'living example'

April 05, 1994|By Stan Lichtenstein

JOHN Thanos is scheduled to be executed by Maryland May 16, but between now and then he has to choose how he wants to become a "living example" -- so to speak -- of the wonders of modern technology.

Thanos, a defiant type who eschews any new appeals, is scheduled to become Maryland's first executed murderer in 33 years and the first to exercise "choice." Somberly, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has signed a law providing for Thanos and 13 other death-row inmates to specify in writing whether they prefer to be gassed the old-fashioned way or to depart more serenely by means of lethal injection.

After the condemned 14 are gone, future miscreants will have no option -- they'll just have to reconcile themselves to dying in a drug-induced sleep at the hands of kindly, needle-wielding executioners.

On the basic issue of capital punishment, whatever the methodology, Supreme Court Justices Harry Blackmun and Antonin Scalia crossed swords a little earlier. Justice Blackmun said he would completely abandon any further "tinkering" with the machinery of death under an arbitrary, discriminatory and fallible legal system. Justice Scalia countered with the observation that the condemned enjoy an "enviable" and "quiet" death compared to some of their victims, citing the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and suffocated with her panties.

But what do the justices know about the reality of execution? The best qualified experts don't survive the experience, so let's turn to the next best source: Pat Buchanan. A capital-punishment enthusiast, he writes in his autobiography of two Missouri gas-chamber executions he attended in the 1960s.

Mr. Buchanan vividly decribes the macabre "little dance of death" of the gassed convicts, then proceeds to expatiate on the moral horror. The doomed one's suffering, he observes, lies not so much in the seconds or minutes of the execution itself as "in the knowledge he has been judged unfit to live by his fellow men, in the knowledge his life is coming to an end, by a date certain and a date soon."

On the larger screen of public events, "execution-style" killings have been brought home to all of us in our own living rooms. We have seen Jack Ruby execute Lee Harvey Oswald in a crowded Dallas police station with a shot to the stomach. We have seen a South Vietnamese government official shoot a bound and unidentified "communist" through the head at point-blank range -- a quick and therefore "merciful" death, by one line of reasoning.

Documentaries and dramatizations abound showing killings by firing squad, electric chair, hanging or what have you. In "moderate" Saudi Arabia, beheadings in the public square are commonplace, and you can be executed for mere words ("blasphemy"), while some Americans (only a few, I hope) hail the practice as one that "works," serving the interests of law and order and freedom from fear.

Executions are degrading to everyone involved, and that includes the executioners and the society that employs them. Take the case of Benito Mussolini, for example. I was around when this founder of fascism -- famous for administering castor oil to his political opponents and bombing Ethiopian villages -- met his end, along with his young mistress, Claretta Petacci. After they were shot to death, their bodies were hung upside down on public display.

I hated Mussolini, but I also hated the human depravity and circus atmosphere attending the couple's demise. I felt the same way about the more recent but similar fate of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife.

John Thanos may welcome his death, but most aging human beings strive to heed Dylan Thomas' preachment against going "gentle into that good night." Edna St. Vincent Millay put it more ++ forcefully. She vowed to put up a fight against the angel of death: "With his hand on my mouth he shall drag me forth, shrieking to the south and clutching at the north."

And then -- getting back to the condemned -- there was that legendary convict, mounting the scaffold for his scheduled hanging long ago, who was heard to remark: "If it weren't for the honor, I'd just as soon skip the whole thing."

That's "gallows humor," I know, but he could have expressed the same sentiment if he were here today, in a Maryland prison, strapped down on a gurney and facing his departure by lethal injection.

Stan Lichtenstein is a writer in Bethesda.

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