Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Executioner Has No Clothes

Yesterday's Austin-American Statesman reports that Texas, the nation's busiest executionist state, has acquired a new drug for administering lethal injections. This change in policy comes in the wake of a global shortage of the traditional anesthetic, sodium thiopental. The new drug, pentobarbital, has also been used to euthanize animals.


Scholars of crime and punishment, ranging from Michel Foucault to Michael Meranze, have argued that there is an inherent gamble associated with state violence. Meranze writes of eighteenth century corporal punishments, "Public punishments required the approval, or at least the acquiescence, of the audience." The inherent instability of the publicly punished body led to what Foucault called a disciplinary regime of punishment. The punishing act as such became increasingly invisible, whereas the pedagogy of punishment saturated all sectors of society.

I believe this perspective on spectacle and punishment can help us understand the meaning and implications of the current scramble to replace thiopental. Lethal injection is widely heralded as the most "humane" form of execution. At the very least, it is a far more subdued ritual than the gallows, firing squad, electric chair, or gas chamber. Every executionist state now uses the method as its preferred or only form of execution. Indeed, the last several years of anti-death penalty activism have seen attempts to discredit lethal injection as cruel and unusual. Thiopental, importantly, is the first drug administered in a lethal injection. It renders the condemned inmate unconscious while the other two, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, cause paralysis and cardiac arrest. Without the initial introduction of a barbituate drug, both these pharmaceuticals would cause immense pain. However, because of the paralysis associated with pancuronium bromide, there is no way of knowing if the thiopental has been effective. In such an event, the inmate would experience an agonizing death but be completely unable to communicate this to the prison staff.

Reservations about its effectiveness notwithstanding, the availability of a drug like thiopental is absolutely necessary in rationalizing the state's prerogative of violence vis-a-vis capital punishment. So desperate are executionist states to retain their silent, "painless" ritual, some have resorted to the black market to maintain their supply of thiopental. Texas, on the other hand, has sought a new drug altogether. Either way, I believe we are seeing, once again, a crisis of legitimacy in the realm of state-sanctioned killing. As states scramble to find a method that will render the bodies they seek to kill unconscious, we are reminded, if only for a moment, of the macabre processes they hope such drugs will conceal.

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