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Updated on May 8, 2013
final exits
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There are people who commit heinous crimes. After apprehended and convicted, some are sentenced to die. Not all make it to the gallows. Death Row is an elite club of sorts. in 2013, seventeen death row inmates are scheduled to be executed. Eleven will take place in Texas, to no one's surprise. Three will be in Ohio, supposed to be an enlightened state, as opposed to Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Florida, whose reputations vary depending upon who is talking and about what. It is doubtful anybody outside the involved knows who the unfortunates are and what they did. But to death penalty opponents, it hardly matters.

Crime is a big problem in the United States. Nobody needs to be told. To be sure, the executed are often poor and often enough intellectually challenged. Not always, of course. The point being that the origins of violent crime, physically or psychologically, are not consistently situated in the brainpans of mental midgets. Getting away scot free, however, requires smarts. Computer crime, for example, is so rife and impossible to monitor that victims rarely bother to contact the authorities. The elderly also continue to take abuse without recourse to justice. So do many law-abiding citizens who live in crime-ridden areas and are simply not listened to. There are theories that some people are, by virtue of their personalities, victims. That is a little unkind. Meditate on human nature and observe human beings. The results are almost always the same. In the aggregate, over time, animality will out. Nobody is safe, morning, noon, and night. And sometimes, the wish arises by osmosis to do away with anyone who might do harm, which would require a broad stroke indeed.

Fortunately, lines are drawn so that wishing, which does not make it so, is not a capital crime. Otherwise, few would make it into their twenties. What this convoluted exercise in ratiocination is all about is that although there are always those aforementioned criminals, non-criminals do not really know what to do about it. Tragedies cannot be undone. Taking this fact out on the already tarnished hides of the convicted turns the guilty into the innocent. Non-criminals, too, can become criminally passionate, desirous of punishments in lieu of the forbidden commission of crimes. Or so it would seem. As it turns out, questions concerning punishment in the aftermath of the most unimaginable crimes have been asked for a long time without a definitive answer. Moreover, Americans, too, have been asking these same questions since their 18th century inception, an entry point late in the highly debated field of right and wrong going back in time to the dawn of civilization.

Rites of Execution, by Louis P. Masur, might not be a book for all ages, but it is extremely informative about a subject many have strong feelings about, but few have truly examined. Apparently the American Revolution, before and after, was accompanied by a crime wave. It must have been bad. The more offensive culprits were hung in public. Americans, who had only just become independent, found hangings difficult to deal with in that they seemed barbaric, a characteristic associated in their minds with the British. Men of the cloth took up the cudgels. Some found executions cathartic, meaningful to onlookers, or parishioners, and essential to the salvation of criminals. Life imprisonment, even with hard labor, the argument goes, could never turn their hearts toward penitence like the gallows. The theatricality of such events was also a factor. The condemned repented, finding receptive, sympathetic ears and eyes. Also, executions were the norm, not the exception.

This is where taste, rather than reason, justice, or religion, enters the picture, which cannot be argued with. Some like the noose, others do not. In the past, the executed repented, their contrite words cleansed, elaborated upon, and grammatically corrected by ambitious scribes. Their confessions could be read and reflected upon. On execution day, they struck penitential poses that could be drawn and then printed. In other words, showtime for terminals went on as people gathered in public squares to watch and shudder. Scenes like these pop up in the movies now and then. In the real world, when the lash of public opinion eliminated public executions, lynchings cropped up. It seems that crime and punishment knows no foolproof, long-lasting, satisfactory, and universal solution, dating back to the Code of Hammurabi and Mosaic Law. The gods used to require unending quotas of fresh blood, guilty or not, and in cold-blooded ceremonies, too. Why keep on doing this for whatever reason?


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