AS THINGS currently stand, Margie Velma Bullard Burke Barfield will soon become the first woman executed in the United States in more than 20 years. Because she is a woman, and a grandmother as well, many people feel squeamish about Mrs. Barfield's date with the executioner -- more people than felt troubled, for example, by the recent execution of her fellow multiple murderer, Linwood E. Briley. But distinctions between the two cases or, indeed, between Mrs. Barfield's and any other condemned person's are not central to the judgment that Mrs. Barfield's life should be spared.

Mrs. Barfield, after all, has much to answer for. Like Mr. Briley, she is responsible for a number of coldblooded killings, among them that of her own mother, a husband and two elderly persons in her care. Her victims were dispatched by arsenic poisoning -- a method that, as North Carolina Gov. James Hunt observed in denying her plea for clemency, is "slow and agonizing."

True, she was an abused child, but so, sadly, were millions of other adults who have not resorted to Mrs. Barfield's violent ways. And while she has now repented and espoused evangelical Christianity, this does not distinguish her from such other notorious killers as James David Autry, Ronald Clark O'Bryan and Henry Lee Lucas, for whom little sympathy was evoked.

Mrs. Barfield has confessed to four of the murders of which she had been suspected; fear of executing the wrong person is clearly not a factor. And while, as a model prisoner, she has demonstrated affection for her grandchildren and other laudable characteristics, it is hard to imagine that anyone would ever feel comfortable in returning her to free society. No, if capital punishment is to be tolerated in this country, Mrs. Barfield seems as good a candidate as any.

The point is that capital punishment shouldn't be tolerated -- not because more culpable persons are spared or because an innocent person might be killed or because the society is deprived of a potentially contributing member. Capital punishment degrades the society that inflicts it.

Did anyone really feel comfortable reading about the bloodthristy mob shouting, "Fry 'im," as Linwood Briley was dispatched? Or about the gallows humor indulged in by reporters and officials as they wondered whether the lights would dim at the appointed hour? Or how an observer of the execution noticed the odor of burning flesh but wasn't bothered because the victim didn't emit any "groans, moans or gasps"?

If this sort of spectacle is compatible with the values of a civilized society, why not just revert to public hangings? No doubt the public could revive its once avid taste for blood sport. Perhaps that doesn't strike you as an attractive idea. Then you should oppose Mrs. Barfield's execution. Not because she is innocent -- she is not -- but because it is wrong for the state to execute individuals, and because her execution, like Linwood Briley's, brutalizes the society that authorizes it.