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The Panopticon and the Public Spectacle

08.11.2005 | POLITICS

Capital punishment in America has a sordid history. Unlike European countries, which abandoned the death penalty on moral grounds and as a prerequisite for admission to the Council of Europe, the United States has stuck with it for the better part of the last three centuries. And since the colonial days, we have used much the same arguments to buttress support for capital punishment: deterrence, retribution, and incapacitation.

Yet, the form in which executions have been administered has changed radically. In the 17th and 18th centuries, death penalties were ritualized public events, advertised in newspapers and attended freely by men and women of all socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. Even children were encouraged to attend executions as part of an education on the workings of justice.

In his 2002 book, The Death Penalty, UCLA Law professor Stuart Banner documented the public spectacle, in which as many as 50,000 people would swarm under a canopy -- more in a single space than any events except war and mass religious ceremonies. Executions in previous centuries were well-attended because of people's fascination with death -- like we are with horror movies, Schwarzenegger bloodbaths, and violent video games. They also expected to witness public confessions and final words, parades, poetry readings, religious sermons, and sometimes food and drink.

Contemporary America, by contrast, considers execution to be something conducted in private. In spite of suggestions put forth by Norman Mailer and Phil Donahue to make executions televised, they have become radically distanced from the pubic eye. In the place of a hangman, a minister, and thousands of boisterous attendees, today's execution is set in a small, quarantined room, witnessed by a solemn prison guard and performed by medically trained experts.

In most cases family members and the media are present, but they are ushered into an adjacent room where the actual death -- the administration of the lethal dose of pancuronium bromide -- is typically concealed from them behind thick glass windows, blinds, and curtains (Hitchens, "Scenes from an Execution"). Furthermore, unlike the hangman who performed the execution personally, as Banner notes, today's executions are broken down into several small tasks administered by different people, resulting in further de-personalization of the practice.

Ostensibly this offers a more humanitarian and painless way to die than the gallows or the electric chair. However, a dose of sodium pentothal renders the condemned unconscious and deprives him the opportunity to frame last words or to be cognizant of what is happening to him.

When he finally dies, he is lying down -- not sitting or standing up as is the case with other methods -- which contributes to the illusion that he is merely sleeping or has died of natural causes. The modern apparatus, thus, is designed to distance the execution from the public, the executioner, and even from the condemned man himself.

Abandoning the public spectacle is considered by contemporaries a sign of progress, the kind John Stuart Mill presages in his essay "On Civilization," in which humaneness and social order have superseded the public staging of violence. Nevertheless, because death was on such visible display in previous centuries, the public was afforded a valuable opportunity denied to people today: They could think about the principle of capital punishment as well as the actual individuals who were executed.

Members of the audience, who frequently stood within spitting distance of the gallows, could actually talk to the executed and engage him on a personal level. Much like Jesus on the cross, this often translated into sympathy for the condemned. As Banner notes, in the 18th century execution of Ebenezer Mason, who was condemned for killing his brother-in-law, a woman screamed, "Mason, alas! We mourn for you; Setenc'd to die, as murderers do."

Seeing a condemned man or woman sobbing repentantly, talking to him in his final momen

About the Author
Joe Krupnick is a frequent contributor to Flak Magazine.
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