The recent tragedy of the botched execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood III puts an irony in high relief. Terrible things are done in our name but we'd rather not know about it. So desperate are we to keep this in place that we talk ourselves into a comforting alternative. If only the "right" combination of drugs could have been administered, in the "right" way, Wood would have died appropriately.
But Chief Justice Alex Kozinski of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (as quoted by Joan Vennochi of The Boston Globe) says, "(Executions) are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should we. If we as a society want to carry out executions we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf."
Our fascination with the "right" cocktail mixture for execution is part of the American profile of living with the unpleasant details of violence. Efficiency won't clean it up and release us from responsibility whether we commit to a war or the execution of another human being.
As Bishop for the Armed Services and Prison Ministries I was in a unique position to observe that American culture is insistent to tame wild and unruly situations into a systematized corral of decorous and efficient outcomes.
When America goes to war our soldiers are supremely equipped. Each combatant is outfitted with gear valued in the thousands of dollars to include special body armor and super rifles with extra detection and accuracy. Most of all, the battle area is made so lethal that no enemy could survive. The flaw in this yen for efficiency is that the collateral damage to innocent civilians inevitably increases.
The more American war planners ratchet up the level of toxicity (delivery of ordnance and firepower), with the intent of victory and the safety of our troops, the inevitable by-product will be circumstantial civilian mortality.
It is this bizarre amalgam of efficiency, progress, and a dainty disdain for the grisliness of war that makes up the American attitude today. This is a learned anathema about sacrifice and war probably, in part, as a holdover from nightly newscasts about body counts in Vietnam. So strong was this revulsion that no official death count was acknowledged by the Bush Administration during the Iraq War; bodies were discreetly flown home. America seemed to be saying, "Do the war but don't remind us of the details and, above all, don't ask us to sacrifice!"
The same observation continued with my time as Bishop of Prisons and visits to those facilities in states where capital punishment was applied. During such times I would tour the grounds with the chaplains, learn about programs, lead worship and perform confirmations and socialize with the inmates. At one facility in Ohio, I had a wonderful Thanksgiving meal.
When it came to death houses, apologies always filled the air: the facility was off limits, under-utilized, or, most usually "under repair to be improved." When I did tour one of these places (and there were about 20) every narrative was the same: "The routine here is well-rehearsed and efficient (read humane)." I was struck how often efficiency became the equivalent of humane when those two values really have no relevant connection to each other.
Whether it is a battlefield or a death house the same concept seems to be applied America wants the deed done--the quicker the better--no messy details, please.
There is something about this interpretation of justice as blunt revenge that seems appealing to a mindset of efficiency. Karl Barth called such a dodge, "ontic non-being." It's as if we conjured a parallel, pretend being state to give us an assurance: this war will correct things, or, this execution will restore wholeness and life.
The only way out of this box is to enter life on its terms, that of mercy and shared vulnerability. From the cross Jesus made this plea even as soldiers gambled on his clothing...not dividing it, of course, all in the name of efficiency.
The Rt. Rev. George E. Packard is the former Bishop of the Armed Services and Prison Ministries of the Episcopal Church. He retired from the bishopric in 2010. He resides in New York.