We should have seen this coming, I suppose.
We are, after all, the can-do country. Nobody is going to tell us what we can and cannot do, even as they make it impossible for us to do what we used to do before they said we couldn’t do it anymore. If this sounds a bit muddled, welcome to the desperate illogic behind our devotion to capital punishment.
It turns out the collective conscience of the civilized world does not share our affection for government-sanctioned murder. We don’t call it that, of course. We refer to it as the “death penalty,” as if calling murder something other than murder makes it all right when we do unto others precisely what we’ve insisted they shouldn’t have done to someone else.
For many years, our weapon of choice has been lethal injection, a deadly cocktail of paralytic and anesthetic drugs, combined with potassium chloride. The idea is to make death look peaceful so that no one involved in the process has to go home feeling like he or she just killed somebody.
Over time, prisons have to come to depend on third-party providers for their lethal injections. Until recently, that is, when suppliers announced they would no longer provide the primary anesthetic for executions. So now, here we are, facing a nationwide shortage of drugs needed to do the deadly deed.
Here comes Utah, where the state legislature has just received the governor’s blessing to bring back firing squads if lethal drugs aren’t available.
A modern-day firing squad is not the stuff of old movies, where the condemned man stood spur-to-spur and ramrod straight, puffing on a last cigarette dangling from his lips. Associated Press reporter Brady McCombs describes with horrifying detail just how these executions unfold in Utah.
The prisoner is strapped to a chair with a target pinned over his heart.
Let’s all take a moment and imagine that.
About 25 feet away, five shooters hide behind a wall and slide their .30-caliber rifles through slots. The gunmen are volunteers. As McCombs reported, so many gunmen volunteer that priority goes to those from the area where the crime was committed. Sort of like squatter’s rights, with ammo.
One of the guns is loaded with a blank. This apparently is meant to protect any shooter later seized by conscience over his eagerness to volunteer to kill an unarmed man strapped to a chair with a target pinned over his heart. Nothing shoos away a dark moment of the soul like the reassurance that we will never know for sure if our bullet blew up the heart of a fellow human.
Utah State Rep. Ray Paul sponsored the bill to bring back the firing squad. He assured the Associated Press last year that this isn’t nearly as awful as it sounds to those whose own hearts fibrillate at the thought of a person strapped to a chair with a target over his heart. Here, in the United States of America.
Paul’s advice: Settle down, all of you.
“The prisoner dies instantly,” he said. “It sounds draconian. It sounds really bad, but the minute the bullet hits your heart, you’re dead. There’s no suffering.”
Lest he sound callous, he added this: “There’s no easy way to put somebody to death, but you need to be efficient and effective about it. This is certainly one way to do that.”
(Psst, Team Paul: You really need to work on messaging.)
There’s a glimmer of hope for those who oppose this barbaric practice.
It’s called tourism.
Consider the following sample of headlines on Wednesday, March 25.
The Salt Lake Tribune: “Does firing squad law tarnish Utah’s image?”
ABC News: “Critics worry firing squad law will tarnish Utah’s image.”
U.S. News and World Report: “Critics worry decision to bring back firing squad as execution backup will hurt Utah’s image.”
Dare I suggest a theme here?
Could it be that people who like to swoop down glistening ski slopes and explore the cavernous wonders of nature aren’t keen on states with firing squads manned by an overabundance of volunteer gunmen?
Might they might even take their billions of tourism dollars elsewhere?
David Corsun is director of the University of Denver’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management. He told AP — go AP, by the way — that large organizations tend to avoid states that are drawing flak for recently passed laws. I may enjoy a little too much his conclusion about Utah’s post-firing squad tourism prospects: “Unless it’s Smith and Wesson,” he said, “I don’t think they are going to be racing to that controversy.”
So, maybeâjust maybeâthe one thing that can stop Utah’s firing squads before they start is the almighty dollar.
As motives go, not particularly inspiring, but let’s commiserate another day.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo: daveynin via Flickr