A Neat, Clean Culture of Death

Some years ago I was listening to a radio show that featured a singer from South America. She introduced a song by mentioning that it dealt with certain taboo subjects for Americans. The audience tittered knowingly, like the good apostate Puritans we Americans are.

She quickly corrected them. “No, it’s not about sex. It’s about death.” The audience stopped laughing. We don’t talk about death.

I thought of that incident as I watched the recent struggles surrounding the refusal of medical professionals to participate in the execution of murderer Michael Morales in California.

On my blog, I noted that it’s rather strange for Conservative Christian prolifers to rail at doctors for violating their oath to do no harm when it comes to euthanasia and abortion and then praise them for violating it when they kill people for Caesar. I added (thinking that I was making my point clear) that there’s something bizarre about the insistence on “qualified medical personnel” seeing to it that a person dies. What? Are they afraid they’ll use an unsterile needle on a man who is going to be dead in 30 seconds?

My point was: Our culture wants to kill people, but we don’t want to face the fact that we are killing people. Older, coarser and earthier cultures did this in the town square with an axe and a lot of spurting blood. We prefer our violence privatized and sanitized, from the abortion clinic to Terri Schiavo’s hospice to the spotless execution room. It’s an aesthetic choice that reveals a schizophrenic conscience about our culture of death.

One of my readers took me to mean that there was no moral difference between capital punishment and euthanasia. It’s a common enough mistake and people have supposed this about far better men than me. But I don’t think the two are morally equivalent and wasn’t trying to say that. The taking of innocent human life is intrinsically immoral and the taking of gravely guilty criminal is not. John Paul II said as much in Evangelium Vitae.

But John Paul also recognized that we have no obligation to take human life by capital punishment and he asked that, where possible, lives be spared. And at some level, I cannot help but think the better angels of our natures agree with him, or else we would not act so altogether weird and schizophrenic about the death penalty.

Consider: One of the major arguments for the death penalty is that it is, allegedly, a deterrent. So how do we implement this “deterrent”? We could get the first ten people out of the phone book to be executioners. If it comes to that some of my blog readers were (disturbingly) eager to execute criminals. We could make them executioners. Instead we get “qualified medical professionals” to execute people. Why? Because you need a college degree to do it? Nope. It’s not that hard to kill a man and an eager butcher from the local meat store could do it as painlessly as any “qualified medical professional”. But instead of hiring my zealous comboxers or the local butcher and doing it the old fashioned way, with spurting blood in the town square or on TV (which is the only conceivable way the death penalty could really act as a deterrent), we now cloak the whole thing in white coats, sterile fields, and gleaming lab-like environments that are absolutely invisible to everybody but the condemned, his executioners, and a couple of witnesses. No boozy headsman with an axe or noose. No spurting blood and no jerking struggles at the end of a rope to scare the living daylights out of potential criminals. Above all, no cameras please. We want people who look neat and clean and professional to go into the little room and do the job with maximum sterility and we don’t care that we are forcing the one profession that specifically takes an oath to do no harm to commit the ultimate act of violence to a human being.

In short, we care more about aesthetics than about consistency. And we do it for every form of death we administer from the prison to the Schiavo hospice to the abortuary, because we have this hope that by privatizing and sanitizing our violence, it will make us feel better about committing it. None of that is to say that capital punishment is equal to euthanasia. It is to say that it shows a deeply divided conscience about our culture of death.

So do I want to see a return to the town square running with blood? On the contrary, I agree with Pope John Paul II that the death penalty should only be enacted when absolutely necessary. And I think that, at some level, so does most of our conscience-haunted culture. There is no other word to describe our strange insistence on hiding the violence we do than “shame”.


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email