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Botched or Normal? Pathologies of Violence in the Killing State

The appearance of a cruelty-free execution has always been just that: a carefully-crafted appearance.

Tuesday’s execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma has many people wondering just how far the state is willing to go to kill its own citizens.

I think @gideonstrumpet said it best:

Gideonstrumpet - torture

It’s tempting to understand the torture of Clayton Lockett as a “botched” execution, an unfortunate exception to the rule. But it’s important to remember that, even before the shortage of standard lethal injection drugs, the appearance of a cruelty-free execution has always been just that: a carefully-crafted appearance. The clean, quiet execution of a person who falls asleep under the supervision of trained professionals, never to wake again, has remained until quite recently a tightly-controlled performance of legitimate(d) state violence.

But the visibly gruesome execution of Clayton Lockett and, three months before him, of Dennis McGuire, should move us to reflect not only on the present and future of state killing in the US, but also on its past. How many of the over 1300 apparently normal and legitimate executions in the post-Furman era might have counted as “botched” and torturous if not for the injection of a paralytic drug to prevent any visible signs of suffering?

In a previous post, I argued that there is no meaningful distinction between a botched execution and a proper one, and that ultimately, there is no good way to execute a person. In a follow-up post, I explored one of the more theatrical moments in the staging of a “proper” execution: the so-called consciousness check, in which the warden enters into close bodily relation with the anesthetized prisoner in order to verify that he has indeed lost consciousness, and that the execution may proceed as if he were already gone.

In that second blog post, I noted that three of the six prisoners executed in Tennessee since 1960 – Robert Glen Coe, Philip Workman, and Steve Henley – showed signs of “inadequate anesthesia,” and as a result, they may have suffocated to death while paralyzed. That’s one half of the executions in the past 54 years in Tennessee.

In a 2010 case that challenged the constitutionality of the Tennessee lethal injection protocol, Chancellor Claudia C. Bonnyman of the Davidson County Chancery Court ruled that, in the previous executions of Coe, Workman and Henley,

the prisoners probably were awake and suffocating in silence before the final heart-stopping chemical even was administered.

“Not to be too simplistic, but life is about getting a breath of air,” the judge said as she ruled from the bench. “The body is tuned to need and get air. It is a primary survival issue. There is great suffering and pain if a patient were to suffocate from lack of air.”

She added, “[N]o one can tell if the prisoner is conscious or unconscious, and this is a tragedy given execution by injection.”

As I followed the horror unfolding in Oklahoma, my thoughts kept returning to Tennessee, where a bill to bring back the electric chair recently passed by an overwhelming majority in both the House and the Senate. We are still waiting to see whether Governor Bill Haslam will veto this bill, as over one hundred people urged him to do in a call-in this Monday. But since Haslam had the audacity to sign a bill that will criminalize pregnancy for Tennessee’s most marginalized women, in spite of a national campaign and over 10, 500 signatures urging him to veto the bill, it seems unlikely that he will stop the return of the electric chair.

Again, it’s tempting to understand this legislation as a “barbaric” throwback to a more brutal time, or as the quirky antics of a Southern state. But what if it’s not? What if it’s both compatible with the structure of US democracy and continuous with the normal exercise of state power in the world’s first “genuine prison society” (Wacquant)? What if the US is, as a rule and not just in its most “barbaric” or “botched” moments, a carceral state that divides the population into those whose interests must be protected at all costs and those from whom they must be protected?

In The Abolition of White Democracy, Joel Olsen rejects historical narratives that oppose the lofty ideals of American democracy, such as liberty and equality, to the unfortunate reality of a situation that has not yet managed to live up to these ideals. Olson asks: What if “our ideals” are not the solution but the problem? What if the very structure of US citizenship is founded on the constitutive exclusion of racialized Others, and the permanent subordination of white women and poor white men? What if the “inclusion” of historically-excluded or dependent groups does not transform the structure of white male citizenship, but further legitimates and perpetuates it? Olson argues that “the very structure of American citizenship is white, to the point where, for most of American history, to be a citizen as to be white and vice versa. Racial oppression makes full democracy impossible, but it has also made American democracy possible” (xv).

But if this is the case, then it’s not clear that Clayton Lockett was ever recognized by the state as one of “its own citizens,” nor that his execution – botched or otherwise – is incompatible with the structure of American democracy, although it certainly flies in the face of full democracy. A state that kills people, and also refuses to disclose how it kills them and with what chemicals – a state where the Governor overrides the decision of the state Supreme Court in order to push forward an execution where there are serious and unresolved legal issues – this is not a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word. And yes, it seems to be precisely the normal, everyday workings of American democracy, structured as it is around white supremacy, and reinforced by punitive state power.

In a recent blog post for TruthOut, I suggested that there was a structural relation between the bill to bring back the electric chair and the bill to criminalize pregnancy in Tennessee. It may seem like one bill is pro-death while the other is pro-life, but in fact there’s a structural relation between them, and I would even go so far as to say that this is the structure of (white) American democracy.

On one hand, the fetus represents innocent life, infinitely endangered and infinitely demanding of protection. As Lauren Berlan thas argued, the fetus is an icon of “infantile citizenship” in the US; it is “perhaps the last living American, not yet bruised by history” (6). The fetus is inherently white (even when it’s not). The silence and near-imperceptibility of the fetus makes it an ideal screen for the projection of collective fantasies and for multiple forms of ventriloquism (as Sarah Hansen has also argued). Without the fetus, who would speak for life, for possibility, for America?

On the other hand, the monster on death row is infinitely dangerous and infinitely deserving of state punishment. The only reasonable response to the life-destroying life of the monster is to destroy it by blasting it with electric volts or pumping its veins with toxic chemicals or bringing it before a firing squad (or, or, or…). Just as the silence of the fetus invites the projection of collective fantasies and desires, so too does the silencing and immobilizing of prisoners on death row invite the projection of dangerous fantasies of a deathbound life with no standing, no future, and no legitimate claim to (a meaningful sense of) citizenship. Drawing on Lisa Cacho’s account of social death, we could say that the death row prisoner is the one whose life we must destroy in order to protect the life of the fetus and the structure of infantile (white) citizenship.

It might sound like I am cynically rejecting the fetus and celebrating the monster, but this is not my intention. I think every living being, dependent or independent, deserves to be protected from harm, but the systematic protection of some lives at the expense of others both multiplies the harm of state violence and perpetuates the structural violence of racism, poverty, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. Part of the problem with fetishizing fetal life is that you end up passing terrible laws for the sake of “protecting” the fetus, in spite of overwhelming evidence that it will harm them and/or the women who bear them. And part of the problem with demonizing people who commit acts of interpersonal violence is that we never actually grapple with the root causes of that violence and the multiple levels of structural and institutional violence that (re)produce harm at an interpersonal level.

People do not just decide, one day, to kill, rape, or mutilate another living being. That violence emerges from a context, and as long as we continue to demonize, exclude, and incapacitate individuals who commit horrific acts of interpersonal violence, while effacing or even justifying and supporting state violence, we will never understand how to transform the structures and institutions that enable and perpetuate harm. There is so much to learn from the brave and brilliant work of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Generation Five, the Silvia Rivera Law Project, Women With a Vision, Nashville Peacemakers, and other organizations for community accountability and transformative justice, who are committed to working with both survivors and perpetrators of violence in order to reduce harm and to create new possibilities for mutual empowerment and social justice. Ultimately, the project of transformative justice also demands the abolition of white democracy, and the creation of new forms of citizenship and state sovereignty. And that is our only hope.