What psychological factors may lurk beneath endorsement of or opposition to the death penalty? This author speculates.
On April 29, 2014, Oklahoma prison officials administered an untested mixture of 3 drugs to Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist. The new cocktail was deemed necessary because European companies that once supplied chemicals used for lethal injections in the US refused to sell them to states that still sanction the death penalty.
The execution went immediately and terrifyingly wrong. Following administration of the first drug, Lockett, obviously conscious, started to writhe and groan, and then went into convulsions. The death chamber’s curtains were hastily drawn and witnesses summarily removed. While subsequent events are still obscure, it is clear that Lockett died of a coronary occlusion 42 minutes after the “procedure” began. Oklahoma authorities suspended further executions, including one scheduled for the same day. The usual suspects were rounded up for an investigation. It will take several months before all the facts are on the table.
Lockett was an unrepentantly wicked man. He committed many acts of brutal violence before his arrest in 1999 for the rape, shooting, and live burial of a 19-year-old girl. Most inmates who face a death sentence behave well during the slow march of years it takes for their cases to plod through our courts. But Lockett’s malicious behavior continued unabated on death row. He threatened serious injury to prisoners and guards, proudly proclaimed himself a badass “assassin” while he pursued every legal means of preventing his execution.
Intriguingly, Lockett’s engrained evil and repugnant deeds can be construed as justification for-or against-the death penalty. Refusing to exact the barbaric retribution of earlier times on this monster of depravity could be deemed an exemplary exercise of civilized morality. One could also argue that life behind bars would be far more punitive than a quick and merciful death.
Mutatis mutandis, Lockett’s dispatch could be construed as a civilized society’s most meaningful response to heinous crime. But a remorseless sociopath may actually thrive during life incarceration, at the very least pose mortal danger to prisoners and guards alike. Far better to have him permanently deleted.
Lockett’s maladroit execution predictably rekindled debate over the death penalty. I won’t rehash the standard arguments pro or con. I undertook this piece after hearing several acquaintances assert that although they strongly opposed the death penalty, the Oklahoma grisly debacle gave Lockett the excruciating end he truly deserved.
The cognitive disconnect implied by this statement set me to wondering about the deeper psychic factors behind standard views. I claim no statistical proof on either side of the dispute, nor do I believe that unconscious, or at least unacknowledged, motives always figure decisively in most opinions one way or another. I only suggest there may be less rational biases swirling beneath the surface of “reasonable” beliefs about the death penalty.
Contrary to the Tom Waits’ ballad, we are not innocent in our dreams, neither as adults nor as children. Guilt-ridden filicidal and parenticidal fantasies are ubiquitous in early childhood. According to psychoanalytic development theory (to which I still mostly subscribe on clinical grounds), these are checked by fantasized threat of dire punishment dictated by a primitive superego, the extravagant harshness of which has yet to be tempered by mercy.
Every child we ever were still lives within the psyche. One theorizes that adult justification of execution may be inflected by the remnants of the child’s persecutory superego. (The awful punishments meted out to the wicked in fairy tales have been said to embody the child’s sadistically inclined vision of justice.)
Throughout history, the voyeuristic yen to watch bloody spectacles has been joined to the sanction of extreme vengeance, practiced on true criminals in the name of justice, but also, and all too often, on innocents judged criminal by a corrupted state-as in the Holocaust. The fictional depiction of vengeance has existed for millennia. Violent retribution occurred offstage in Greek tragedy. Elizabethan and Jacobean stages dripped with bloodshed in revenge. Horrifically cruel executions were also viewed by huge, jeering Elizabethan audiences, who savored the gory spectacle while applauding its rectitude. Public hangings were attended just as eagerly in the late Victorian era. In the old West, a multiple hanging was a crowd-pleasing popular entertainment, hallmarked by the hawking of beer and preaching of instructive sermons.
One questions whether the insensate lust for retribution of times past still tinges our gentled down, relatively private executions. (Note that revenge drives much contemporary crime and horror fiction as well as film narratives-notably in torture porn such as the SAW series.)
Today, mention of retribution is likely to mesh with citing the need for “closure” in death penalty advocacy, whether it is advocated that the perpetrator should receive a death at least as painful as his victim’s, or a humane extinction. Prosecutors and conservative-media talking heads often state as received truth that execution will definitively end the grief that has tormented survivors for years, or will enable effective grieving to begin, with the expectation of a quick finish.
But grieving is never so tidily accomplished. It may be prolonged, sometimes indefinitely forestalled-especially when murder is inflicted on the young, the innocent, the good. Gruesome death intolerably mocks the premise of a just earthly and divine moral order. Those so inclined perceive mortal retribution as restoration of that order.
The principal hidden psychological motive for opposing the death penalty actually lies in plain sight, like Poe’s purloined letter: It is the stark terror of our own inevitable dissolution-in Shakespeare’s words: “. . . to die, to go we know not where . . . ,” augmented by the fear that searing torment might precede passage into the void. Several patients told me that they experienced the agony of Lockett’s bungled execution viscerally, as if it happened to them.
My own position on the death penalty has shifted uneasily back and forth, depending on the time and crime. But I’ve always thought that “humane execution” is sui generis an absurdist oxymoron.
I end with a free association to the words of Will Munny, anti-hero of Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s masterful anti-western. To a wannabe young gunfighter trembling after his first-and probably last-homicide, Munny meditates: “It’s a hell of a thing, kill’n a man. You take away all he’s got-and all he’s ever gonna have.”
This article was originally posted on 5/29/2014 and has since been updated.