IT IS CONCEIVABLE, though not likely, that the world is a better, safer place today without John Spenkelink. Maybe someone, somewhere, who would otherwise have been inclined to commit a capital crime will now not do so because of the fearsome example of John Spenkelink's death. Maybe, as another argument goes, the nation's most prized and important values will have been strengthened by this evidence that the society will not tolerate the continued existence of those who violate them, as Mr. Spenkelink, a convicted killer, did.
We can't prove the negative of this any more than those who believe it can prove the positive. It's just that it doesn't seem very likely. On the contrary, where intangible matters of the spirit are concerned, a much better case can be made that capital punishment by the state and the whole demeaning legal charade leading up to it undermine the country's better values and constitute and assault on its self-respect.
Otherwise why would those in the various branches of government, with their greater and lesser degrees of authority in these affairs, have so assiduously been passing the buck back and forth and all over the place? What else but a case of the don't-blame-me's could inspire the systematic flight from responsibility and bouncing aroung of the ultimate decision to pull the switch that mark these executions? By the time one takes place all those who contributed to the outcome are safe: No one can any longer remember or tell exactly where in the judicial process the choice of death was made and the choice of life rejected.
So it is a pretty safe conjecture that the persons involved in this tidy kind of killing are not particularly proud of the part they play, and they do not tend to talk or behave as if they had just made a definite contribution to our collective better nature. And when you read those terrible familiar last-hours-and-minutes proceedings, remembering who is doing the killing, it is not hard to see why. With John Spenkelink it was the same old story again: the fresh towel under the chin, the harness fitted on the head, the lowering of the hood-all this so orderly and careful-and then the singeing of the flesh at the first shot of voltage, the skin turning black . . . and so forth.
Nice going. There are 130 more on Florida's death row in various stages of legal condemnation. Will they all-or only some of them, or maybe only a few-be electrocuted to further advance our morals and maintain the strength of our values? Only the courts, the Florida legislature and Gov. Graham know.