Arthur Koestler opened his polemic against capital punishment in Britain by saying that the island nation was that quaint and antique place where citizens drove on the left hand side of the road, drank warm beer, made a special eccentricity of the love of animals, and had felons “hanged by the neck until they are dead.” Those closing words—from the formula by which a capital sentence was ritually announced by a heavily bewigged judge—conveyed in their satisfyingly terminal tones much of the flavor and relish of the business of judicially inflicted death.
The last hanging in Britain occurred in 1964. Across the channel in France, the peine de mort was done away with by the Mitterrand administration in the early 1980s. So the two great historic homelands of theatrical capital punishment—conservative Britain with its “bloody code” and exemplary gibbetings described by Dickens and Thackeray, and Jacobin France with its humanely utilitarian instrument of swift justice for feudalism promoted by the good Doctor Guillotin—have both dispensed with the ultimate penalty. The reasoning was somewhat different in each case. In Britain there had been considerable queasiness as a consequence of a number of miscarriages of justice that had led to the hanging of the innocent. In France, in the memorable words of Mitterrand’s Minister of Justice, M. Robert Badinter, the scaffold had come to symbolize “a totalitarian concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state.”
Since then no country has been allowed to apply for membership or association with the European Union without, as a precondition, dismantling its apparatus of execution. This has led states like Turkey to forego what was once a sort of national staple. The United Nations condemns capital punishment—especially for those who have not yet reached adulthood—and the Vatican has come close to forbidding if not actually anathematizing the business. This leaves the United States of America as the only nation in what one might call the West, that does not just continue with the infliction of the death penalty but has in the recent past expanded its reach. More American states have restored it in theory and carried it out in practice, and the last time the Supreme Court heard argument on the question it was to determine whether capital punishment should be inflicted for a crime other than first-degree murder (the rape of a child being the suggested pretext for extension).
To be in the company of Iran and China and Sudan as a leader among states conducting execution—and to have pioneered the medicalized or euthanized form of it that is now added to the panoply of gassing, hanging, shooting, and electrocution and known as “lethal injection”—is to have invited the question why. Why is the United States so wedded to the infliction of the death penalty? I have heard a number of suggested answers: two in particular have some superficial plausibility. The first is an old connection between executions and racism, and the second is the relatively short distance in time that separates the modern U.S. from the days of frontier justice.