AFTER ONE FRANTIC LAST flurry of legal maneuvering, the State of Utah succeeded in having Gary Gilmore killed at 8:07 o'clock Monday morning. The execution was carried out, according to those who were there, about as efficiently and effectively as such things can be. None of the four persons who fired the fatal shots missed. Mr. Gilmore, true to his word, did not flinch. Plenty of blood spilled, as always will be when a human being is shot to death.
Although the country was spared the spectacle of a public shooting, its citizens were drenched in thousands of words that attempted to describe the scene in utmost detail. Some of this was moving, and some of it was cheap. We, at least, found all of it profoundly distressing: having been spared for a decade the ordeal of reading about how civilized nation puts a convicted prisoner to death, we had almost forgotten how awful it is. And we had almost forgotten as well the hysterical outpouring of court orders and counter-orders that precedes all such affairs. Midnight judicial hearings, hasty airplane trips and frantic telephone calls - things that make a farce out of the orderly pursuit of justice - are as much a part of capital punishment as are bullets or gas pellets or electrical switches.
For 358 people, the shots fired in Utan Monday must still be reverberating. They are the ones - 354 men and 4 women - on death rows in 20 states waiting to learn whether they will follow Gary Gilmore to execution or whether they will escape through some quirk of fate or law or public conscience. For some of them, at least, the only hope is that American public will recoil in horror from this demonstration of an ancient rite that has been resumed in its name. That chance, we think, is small now. The belief that killing criminals somehow improves the world still runs deep. But surely the time will come when some execution will be the last, when reverence for life will win out in its long struggle with the human desire for revenge.
We should think about the legal and moral squalor of the Gilmore case. By 'we' we mean the rest of us - the executioners, the prison officials, the judges, the jury and the public as a whole. Mr. Gilmore was dispatched, after all, in our name. You could probably argue that as a killer of two men, Mr. Gilmore was beneath the lurid fate that the state of Utah afforded him. But the rest of us should have been above it.