Why Secrecy isn’t Good for the Death Penalty

I was listening to a story on NPR this morning, talking about a bill in the Ohio House of Representatives that would provide anonymity for pharmacies that compound the drugs used in state-ordered executions, and also physicians who consult on the procedures–read about it here: Death Penalty Reform Bill

This has come about because European companies are refusing to provide drugs for executions, and also because a judge imposed a moratorium on executions in Ohio until 2015 because of problems with the protocol: back in January, it took one man over 25 minutes to die, and apparently, the death was painful.  [And, as you might imagine, some of the conversation around this whole issue has brought out the uglier side of our human nature, with some publicly dismissing the problem of a “botched” execution with the justification that those being executed have inflicted so much suffering on others, why shouldn’t they suffer, too?  Because, you know, it’s always great when our justice system models itself on criminal behavior….]

So, full disclosure:  I am strongly opposed to the death penalty for all kinds of reasons, including theological ones; but, in this case, I also am opposed to secrecy.  More than once, Jesus talked about bringing things into the light, and coming out of the darkness; and it’s a powerful metaphor that can be interpreted in many different ways.  In this context, I see it pointing to the necessity of making hard decisions and having difficult conversations publicly, and holding ourselves accountable to the larger societal context.  Terrible, terrible things can be done in secret, simply because it is easier to justify our actions to ourselves than to others.  There’s a great Sherlock Holmes mystery [I forget which one] where Holmes & Watson are riding out on the train away from the city into the countryside, and Watson says something about the beauty of the sparsely-occupied landscape.  Holmes disagrees, saying that when he sees the lonely houses, his mind imagines all the wickedness that can go on unseen and unheard behind the estate walls.  Even in the poorest sections of London, he says, a cry of pain or a call for help will draw a response.  The isolation of “darkness” strips away the protection of a community, leaving victims isolated and helpless.

There is a reason why the death penalty increasingly is being challenged in a variety of states, and why 140 countries have abolished it–no other European country has it.  It is fraught with ethical, practical, legal and, as I said, theological complications; and it’s unclear whether it really can stand as a part of the justice system to which we as a nation aspire.  In any case, however, burying these complications under the cloak of darkness is not going to help matters; instead, it will encourage companies, individuals and states to simply continue the status quo, even as we are seeing more and more how broken the system really is.  In almost all cases, secrecy perpetuates injustice, and gives people the illusion that they are above the law, above accountability, and above public responsibility.  It’s definitely true here, and I’m hoping those in Ohio realize it.


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