Bring the Guillotine Back to Death Row

A quick, painless, gruesome way to carry out capital punishment
More
Workers clean and dismantle the guillotine after the May 25, 1946, execution of convicted serial killer Dr. Marcel Petiot in Paris. Bloodstains are visible on the pavement. (Associated Press)

If I were governor of a state that executed prisoners I'd declare a moratorium for my entire tenure. I wish that the United States would stop imposing the death penalty. I nevertheless find myself nodding along to Sonny Bunch's case for reintroducing the guillotine, a response to the botched execution of a death-row inmate in Oklahoma.

He argues that America has made its executions bloodless to protect the sensibilities of those who support the death penalty, with less humane killings as a result. (The electric chair. The gas chamber. Lethal injections. All have had horrific problems.)

Bunch writes:

The guillotine really seems to solve everyone’s problems: It was designed to deliver an efficient, quick, and painless death. It performs that task admirably. I understand the irony of a reactionary such as myself embracing the Terror’s preferred method of execution, but one must give credit where it’s due.

If we’re going to do something—and a large number of Americans and American states are pretty committed to performing executions—we ought to do it right. And “right” in this case means a quick and painless death. I can’t really imagine any reasonable objections to a widespread adoption of the guillotine.

I can imagine one objection: that the guillotine is barbaric. 

But to me, that's a point in its favor. Let's have no illusions about what we're doing when the state carries out the killing of captive prisoners. I imagine support for the death penalty would decline rather quickly once heads started rolling.

That's not what Bunch intends. He explains why he favors the death penalty: 

I believe the studies that show the death penalty does nothing to deter crime, yet support it anyway ... there are some crimes so heinous that there can be no forgiveness from society. This plays into my whole theory of the judicial system, which is that we should imprison fewer nonviolent offenders, rehabilitate those prisoners who can be rehabilitated, and severely punish the rest. I also think we should probably execute fewer people and heighten the standards of evidence required before an execution can be obtained, but that’s a post for another day.

But a prisoner can be kept alive without forgiving him for his crime. And locking a man away for decades with no hope of ever being released is arguably a more severe punishment than death. On its own, this case for the death penalty isn't enough.

One powerful case against the death penalty is its irreversibility. 

Here's another argument against it: Even if there's a case where there's absolute certainty that the condemned is guilty, the execution still requires an executioner. Insofar as in individual takes on that role, he does damage to himself. (It's no accident that firing squads are organized so that no one knows who fired the fatal shot.) And insofar as the executioner acts on behalf of society generally, he undermines that most crucial moral norm, the inviolability or sanctity of life.

This punishment isn't worth the costs it imposes on us.

So let's bring back the guillotine—and once it forces us to confront the barbarity of needlessly killing people who pose no threat to us, let's abolish the death penalty. Countries without the death penalty get along just fine, and I don't think Americans will be able to stomach it once they look it squarely in the face.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In