What better occasion than a public execution gone awry to meditate on one core absurdity of conservatism. Before the curtain was drawn to conceal the botch job from the viewers’ gallery, members of the press saw Clayton Lockett writhing and buckling, struggling to speak and rise against the gurney’s restraining straps. Reporters who have been watching Oklahoma executions since 1990 claim to have never seen anything so gruesome.
Doctors, unable to find a better vein to insert the IV, used one in Lockett’s groin. It says volumes about American culture – that while it’s okay for spectators to watch the state strap someone to a gurney and kill them with injected poisons, it would be indecorous to subject them to a view of the condemned man’s pelvic area – and so prison staff covered it with a sheet. Consequently, they didnt notice that the needle became dislodged, and most of the poison spilled out. When they finally realized their error, all the poison on hand was used up, and with Lockett still alive, the execution was actually called off some 35 minutes after it began. Lockett lent a hand by dying of a heart attack 10 minutes later.
As Buckley Jr. famously quipped, a conservative is someone who thinks the US government is incapable of running Amtrak, but ready to install democracy in Iraq by Tuesday next week. Perhaps it’s so obvious as to not require stating explicitly: if you think government is inept, you cant rationally empower it to off its own citizens. You might as well also advocate for drunk driving – finding incompetents and vesting them with great power to maximize the harm they can do.
Demonstrably, Oklahoma’s government is incapable of killing people in a manner that doesnt shock all but the most calloused of consciences. But you dont need to be a skeptic of government efficiency to recognize that the criminal justice process, in its entirety, is so flawed that it cannot be empowered to end life. As Obama said the next day, “In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems: racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, situations in which there were individuals on death row who were later discovered to be innocent because of exculpatory evidence.” It’s worth noting that Obama – though he will never again run for office – still supports the death penalty, likely for the same cynical political reasons as many other democrats.
Government inefficiencies in teaching children and feeding the poor can be tolerated. Errors in the trial process are unfortunate, but at least they’re somewhat reversible. However anyone who thinks government is fundamentally inept cannot rationally support the death penalty. Conservatives, who pretend fealty to the founding fathers, should be guided by them. Given that 12 of the 25 specific rights in the US Bill of Rights benefit the accused, we must infer that the founders were far more concerned by the threat posed by government than that posed by mere criminals.
Conservatives are in a conundrum: anyone who asserts that government is too inept to run a railroad must be pretty dumb to want to give that same government the power to execute people. But if government can be trusted to kill people, then it can certainly manage less critical tasks, like administering insurance programs and designing websites. Conservatives are having trouble picking their poison….