What If Citizens Chosen at Random Carried Out Executions?

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The GOP debate audience which applauded capital punishment also revealed a polity too removed from the reality of execution for its own good



The clip above is easily the most disturbing from Wednesday night's GOP debate.

Rod Dreher puts it well: "The California GOP audience cheering the announcement that Texas has executed 234 condemned murderers under Rick Perry was a vile, repulsive thing. Even when I was for capital punishment, I believed this. Justice may require execution, but we should never rejoice in taking the life of another human being. At best, capital punishment is a necessary evil."

Surely part of the reason this happened is that for many in the audience, capital punishment is conceived as an abstract political, rather than the actual taking of a human being's life. No surprise that this is so. Actual executions are held in closed settings and reported in news stories most people ignore. Voters are no longer forced to confront the reality of a policy in which they're complicit.

Some argue that executions should be broadcast for this reason. I see their point. There is, however, the countervailing concern that society might revel in this ugly act as grotesque spectacle. Perhaps a better answer is to rid ourselves of professional executioners. Rather than asking the prison doctor to kill the condemned, a citizen would be selected to perform the task, in the manner of jury duty. He or she could get out of performing the execution by claiming status as a conscientious objector, which would always be granted. And then a new name would be chosen.

The risk, again, is that some folks would revel in carrying out the punishment. What capital punishment does to us is, in fact, one of the stronger arguments against it. So perhaps this idea is ultimately a bad one. On the other hand, when a record of hundreds of executions serve as an applause line in our presidential debates, the status quo has shown to be morally corrosive. Maybe this change would force us to confront the reality of what's going on more than is now the case. And wouldn't it be a good thing if folks stopped thoughtlessly celebrating scores of executions, whatever one's ultimate position on whether capital punishment should be legal?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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