With only a few weeks gone by, 1985 promises to be the Year of Death for American prisoners. In the first 16 days of January alone, four capital-punishment killings occurred. In 1984, 20 men and one woman were executed. That was 16 more than 1983, which was double the rate of 1982. The quick pace for all these last miles means that Chief Justice Warren Burger's disdain for the appeals and re-appeals that delay executions is now shared by the lower courts.
The frequency of death has diminished its news value. Executions now rate only wire-service stories, with back-page placement. To prevent boring the readers, execution stories routinely focus on the human side of this inhumanity. Colorful details are provided on the last meal, the last gasps and the last rites.
What need to be told are the stories of the last years of the prisoners. Despite the crowds outside the prison gates that cheer at executions, and despite the satisfaction that the vengeful seem to crave, Justice William Brennan is right: "Even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of human dignity."
That sentiment gets a ferocious mocking by many supporters of the death penalty. These fevered ones are not to be taken with credence because they have so distanced themselves from death row that the people living there are no longer seen as the human beings that they are.
Among those who best understand that humanity is present on death row are the criminologists who have interviewed the condemned men and women. It is not a population easily kept up with. Four years ago, the nation's 35 warehouses of death were stocked with 700 waiting people. Now the number is 1,400 and rising. With the United State as the only Western industrial nation that kills prisoners, we now have still another bolstering of our reputation for solving problems through violence.
One of the criminologists who has gone into the death rows is Prof. Robert Johnson of the school of justice at American University. His 1981 book, "Condemned to Die: Life Under Sentence of Death," is based on interviews with 35 men on Alabama's death row. Johnson found the expected realities: men who were poor, of low self-esteem and from harsh backgrounds. Life near the execution chamber was an extension of the unstable and violent environments of these men before murder was committed.
The get-tough-with-criminals view is that murderers are in some inexplicable way subhuman. Johnson dismisses such simplism: "To deny the humanity of violent men is to deny a part of ourselves and our society. For violence, after all, is an all too common failing of individuals and societies. Not until the basic humanity of the murderer is felt nd understood can the work of explaining and ameliorating his violence begin. At this point one discovers that violence is not some spectre or disease that afflicts some of us without rhyme or reason, but rather that it is an adaptation to bleak and often brutal lives."
At the moment, Johnson is involved in researching the effects of deathwork on some of the guards in the killing chambers: "The business of carrying out executions is almost as dehumanizing as being killed. The job of preparing the prisoners is a wrenching process that society tends to ignore or distance itself from. If you look at people trained to be torturers, they lose some of their humanity. So the executioners lose theirs. This can be extended to society. We have so removed ourselves from the day-to-day lives of people who turn to violence that when we get around to killing them, it is all disembodied and not very real to us."
This is not new to the current American death wave. In the 1957 "Reflections on the Guillotine," Albert Camus wrote that even those who themselves may suffer "the administrative murder that is called capital punishment" can be numb to its horror. In the days "when pickpockets were executed in England, other pickpockets exercised their talents in the crowd surrounding the scaffold where their colleague was being hanged. Statistics drawn up at the beginning of the century in England show that out of 250 who were hanged, 170 had previously attended one or more executions."
To write with mercy -- as do Camus and Johnson -- about murderers is often interpreted, first, as spineless liberalism and, second, insulting to the victims' families. There is no logic in the leaps to those conclusions. Mercy and care are owed to the violated families. Liberals have been leaders in the victim-rights movement.
What needs to be remembered now is that our rising execution rate drops that much lower America's claim to be a humane society. It merely puts us in the company of the Soviet Union and South Africa, two other leaders in executions.