Waiting for the Gag Reflex

By Tom Teepen

Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, pp. 1-2

The killing is picking up, not that anyone notices much any more.

We killed a man in Georgia the other night. The paper front-paged his execution, but most of the TV stations ho-hummed it. Just another electrocution, now commonplace enough that it was reported somewhere around the fund-raising banquet for the musically incontinent, TV's equivalent of a newspaper fate among the truss ads.

There were three executions on a recent Friday, in Alabama, Utah and Florida. Even the hat trick didn't attract great notice. The last time three had been executed in one day was twenty-five years ago, but the event this time was a big yawn.

You can expect an increased rate of executions--and of general indifference about them.

A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court's justices kissed off a major challenge to the death penalty in April--the last major challenge, most experts feel-by saying they don't really care if the death penalty is applied with apparent racial or other inequity. That put a number of death sentences, held in abeyance, back on the killing track.

The persons who follow such matters do not expect exactly a blood bath in the nation's death chambers, but on the other hand the prospect is for a steadily rising frequency. The court of last resort has made it plain that it is impatient with challenges and doesn't want to be bothered on the point.

The previous high for any year since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 was twenty-one executions, but there have been about thirty this year, with a month to go. We are working our way back to the time when executions occurred every other day, or


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more often. There were 199 in 1935, the record. We may be only a few years from the dubious achievement of rivaling, or even exceeding, our worst year.

There are 1,900 men and women on the nation's death rows. About 250 are being added annually.

Is all this killing doing any good? No, if by "good" you mean reducing either the general crime rate or specifically the murder rate.

There were 18,784 murders nationally in 1976, and 20,616 last year. In between, the numbers rose to a high of 23,044 in 1980 and dropped to a low of 18,692 in 1984. Georgia had 692 murders in 1976 and 653 last year, with a low of 460 in 1983 and a high of 877 in 1979.

And if executions are supposed to deter murder, the lesson loses even the possibility of working when it becomes so common it goes virtually unreported.

The simple truth is that the death penalty brutalizes our society without providing any offsetting advantages. It does nothing more, or finer, than throw bodies to a public bloodlust. And far from deterring killers, the death penalty may incite them. It is a statement, officially endorsed, that killing is sometimes a good way to solve problems.

We are not only failing to send the right message with executions. There is a very high risk we are sending just the wrong one.

Most countries that presume to the description "civilized" have quit this pointless business. Britain's and Canada's parliaments recently have firmly rejected proposals to resume the practice. The few putatively civilized nations that retain capital punishment used it rarely.

Execution is quite the popular thing with Americans just now. All the polls show it. All the polls know it. It is not going to be stopped, at least not anytime soon.

But we are killing the retarded without serious qualm. We are near the point of killing persons for crimes they committed as children. And it is increasingly difficult not to notice and admit we are mainly executing people of marginal intelligence, doubtful sanity, debilitating poverty. The death penalty has become an act of class warfare, fought top-down against the poor and incompetent.

America may no longer have a heart in such matters, but perhaps, at some point, we will prove still to have a gag reflex.

Tom Teepen is editor of the editorial page of the Atlanta Constitution