"A convicted killer who was hospitalized for a suicide attempt this week was executed after the state determined he was healthy enough to die."

So the Associated Press described the execution of David Long, a man whose end summed up everything incoherent about the death penalty in this country. Mr. Long had been convicted of the hatchet killing of three women in 1986 and had admitted to other murders. With his execution looming in two days, he was found unconscious in his cell, having apparently hoarded his antidepressant medication and taken the drugs all at once.

Rushed to the hospital in Galveston, he was revived, and when he appeared to be out of danger he was returned to Huntsville to be killed. "He has been upgraded from critical condition to serious and is now alert and has been talking to the hospital staff," Texas state criminal justice spokesman Larry Fitzgerald told USA Today. "So we are preparing for an execution."

The questions the story begs, though comical-sounding, are serious. Why does the state revive somebody knowing that it means to kill him within a couple of days? Given that Mr. Long was to be executed, why was it important to medicate him against depression in the first place? Such elaborate moral and legal fetishes surround the death penalty, with its fine-tuned antiseptic procedures and the bizarre hand-wringing--which the Supreme Court has taken up this term--about what modes of execution are appropriately humane.

They are a veneer of civilization we have placed over an act that is inherently barbaric. While they may serve to aid us in the fiction that the act is less dreadful than it really is, they don't alter the fundamental character of the death penalty at all.

Groucho Marx once joked that a condemned man, led to the gallows, was asked whether he had any last words. "Yeah," the man in the joke responded, pointing at the scaffold. "I don't think that thing's safe!" If only Groucho had known how central this contradiction would become in the politics of the death penalty.