“You’ll Swing for This!”

By | January 10, 2019 | 1 Comments

The photo shows the hanging of the four conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln, July 7, 1865, at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary (now Fort McNair), Washington, D.C. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, died on April 26 after being shot by Union soldiers. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14. In those days, justice wasn’t always sure, but it was always swift. Now it is neither.

I’m old enough to have grown up watching Western films. Often a good guy would say to a bad guy, “You’ll swing for this!” In earlier movies, the hanging would be left to our imaginations. Later Westerns were more realistic, and we saw a gallows being built.

Crime dramas were equally popular. As police arrested a murderer, they would say, “You’ll fry for this!” or “You’re going to the chair!” Sometimes the electrocution was dramatized on the screen.

We grew up having learned an important lesson while being entertained. We learned that terrible crimes, especially murder, would bring terrible punishments. We learned that murderers did not have a right to eat three meals a day, sleep in a warm bed, and enjoy human companionship until they died of old age – while their victims enjoyed none of these benefits.

In high-school physics, we learned that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In movies, we learned that in human behavior, often the same is true.

We also watched dramas involving doctors. They were portrayed as healers. People lying on gurneys or receiving injections were patients. When an execution was necessary, a hangman was sent for. We learned that healing and killing were separate activities, carried out by different people.

Things have changed.

Under the guise of “compassion,” we decided that hanging was cruel. Yes, a brain deprived of oxygen loses consciousness in about five seconds. Yes, there is a certain dignity in dying standing up, not strapped to a gurney.

But hangings sometimes went wrong. If the murderer was too slender, or the drop too short, the neck might not break, and the man might struggle briefly while strangling. And if the murderer was too heavy, or the drop too long, the head might separate from the body – which would make no difference to the criminal, but would upset the witnesses.

So we banned hanging and replaced it with the gas chamber in California and the electric chair in New York. But if the murderer didn’t inhale deeply, he would cough and struggle briefly before the cyanide gas killed him. And electrocuted criminals would grimace and jerk as the current made their muscles contract. But one of the electrodes was on the head. Persons who survive being struck by lightning, or touching high-voltage lines, don’t recall the accident. The brain runs on tiny currents – thousands of volts completely disrupt its functions.

Then we were told that lethal injection was more humane, so we banned the gas chamber and the electric chair. This was done to appease opponents of capital punishment, who claimed other methods were “cruel and unusual” and hence unconstitutional. But when the Constitution was adopted, hanging was the usual method of execution. The Constitution mentions the death penalty four times. No matter – judges decided that what was approved by the authors of the Constitution was “unconstitutional.”

And now opponents of capital punishment claim lethal injection, the way we put beloved dogs and cats to sleep, is “terribly painful.” Critics claim that the murderer may remain conscious after receiving a massive overdose of a sedative. These drugs are used in normal doses to anesthetize surgical and dental patients, who recall nothing about the operation.

But nobody volunteers to receive a similar overdose and report how he felt – if he wakes up. Nobody really believes that the murderer remains conscious. What the critics oppose is not lethal injection, but capital punishment by any means. Predictably, now some judges have banned lethal injection because it is “terribly painful.”

In California all executions have been halted since 2006 by order of a single federal district court judge. Currently there are 747 inmates of death row. Meanwhile, state officials – who oppose the death penalty – have wasted 12 years pretending to be working out a new protocol for lethal injection. We figured out how to land a man on the moon in seven years. Death is far too serious a subject for charades.

I oppose lethal injection, but for another reason. I object to confusing healing and killing.

First we aborted early fetuses. Then we aborted late-term fetuses – the judges insisted. Then we slowly dehydrated and starved to death the brain damaged or incurably ill – the judges insisted. Now a professor of “bioethics” at Princeton favors killing severely disabled or unwanted babies. We have a right to ask: Who’s next − disabled people over age 70? That would get rid of our Social Security and Medicare deficit. It would be “cost-effective.”

When I came into a patient’s room, I was seen by the patient and the family as someone who would try to make the patient better. But I was lucky. I retired before Terri Schiavo was slowly killed over 13 days. And for all those 13 days, the doctors and nurses who were sworn to aid the sick, and the police who were sworn to protect the public, stood by idly. They could say, as Nazi war criminals claimed at their trials, “We were only following orders.” After all, the judges insisted.

The Nazi war criminals were hanged. Back then, we knew what to do with murderers. Back then, we knew the difference between killing and healing. Back then, we revered Judeo-Christian values. We didn’t always live up to them, but we tried. Back then, we didn’t have to view our doctor with suspicion, as a possible double agent. We didn’t have to wonder whether the doctor was working for us to make us better, or working for the government to save money by hastening our death.

But now, we follow no value system. We do whatever the latest judge tells us to do. If a judge tells us that slowly dehydrating and starving the disabled to death is “peaceful, even pleasant,” we believe it. And if another judge tells us that lethal injection is “terribly painful,” we believe that, too. Our beliefs need not be logical, or even consistent. After all, we are only following orders.

Nobody says “You’ll swing for this!” anymore, not even in movies. We’re much too sophisticated, too advanced, too progressive for such crude behavior. Now we medicalize executions, but turn doctors and nurses into executioners. We kill the innocent, but spare the guilty. We gloss over the prolonged suffering of the disabled, but agonize over the possible momentary discomfort of those guilty of the worst crimes. We turn morality and empathy upside down.

We have forgotten that compassion, like money, should be spent wisely. If we waste it on those who don’t deserve it, we will have none left for those who really need it.

He who is kind to the cruel will in the end be cruel to the kind. Talmud

Oh yes, we really have progressed since those primitive days when murderers were executed by the hangman, while old Doc did his best to care for the sick. Aren’t we lucky to live in modern times?

If we were serious about our claim that slow dehydration and starvation is a “peaceful, even pleasant” way to get rid of the disabled, we would also use it for executions. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed that it is good enough for innocent disabled people like Terri Schiavo, so surely it must be good enough for convicted murderers – right? But anyone who proposed that would be castigated as a heartless beast utterly lacking in human compassion. And so it goes in the land of moral confusion and legal chaos.

But we’re not serious, so let’s just watch TV news and see what judges say the Constitution means today. Tomorrow it may mean something else. But be careful − don’t be an unborn or newborn child, get old, or become disabled. It’s not safe anymore. If you really want to be sure of living out your normal life span, be a convicted murderer in a “progressive” state.


Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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