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The Ultimate Painkiller

One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime.

-Oscar Wilde

Alva Campbell was scheduled for execution by the state of Ohio on November 15, 2017, for murder. Prison officials spent over an hour searching for veins to inject lethal drugs into his arms and legs to no avail and changed his death date to June 5, 2019. Romell Broom was scheduled for execution on September 15, 2009, by the state of Ohio for rape, murder and abduction. Prison officials spent over two hours searching for veins in his arms, hands and feet. Broom even offered to do physical activity to make his veins more visible. After the state’s failed execution attempt, Broom was left in pain from eighteen attempted IV line punctures. His legal team appealed calling it cruel and unusual punishment but lost, and Broom was issued a new sentence for execution on June 17, 2020. David Earl Miller was scheduled for execution by the state of Tennessee on December 7, 2018, for murder. He filed a lawsuit in which he asked to be killed by a firing squad, and lost. He then asked to be killed by lethal injection over the electric chair and lost. In the electric chair, Miller, who had served thirty-six years on death row-the longest in the state- offered his final thoughts on his looming death to surrounding security officials: “Beats being on death row.”

What would Jacques Derrida have thought about Campbell and Broom’s botched executions or the state’s refusal to grant Miller a quick death? Perhaps he’d think it inhumane. For Derrida, his concern with the death penalty was the agonizing wait and wonder: “When will death come upon me? At what moment? In which sense am I condemned? Is it to die or to death that I am condemned?” Yes, the death penalty gives one on death row a definite answer to the date on which they will die but questions remain. Which method will be used and how long it will take? Will there be pain? Derrida was preoccupied with changing the time signature of death and believed that no time means no pain. To wait and wonder when was a kind of punishment: “time is suffering”.

If you suppress time, you will suppress sensibility (pathé is sensibility, passivity but also suffering, pain), so that the guillotine, inasmuch as it is supposed to act instantaneously and suppress time, would be what relieves pain, what puts an end to pain: playing with it a little, one would say that it is a little “painkiller”. The guillotine is not just a killer, it’s a painkiller And it kills pain because in a certain way, reducing time to the nothing of an instant, to the nothing but an instant, it kills time. (The Death Penalty, Ninth Session)

Derrida posits the guillotine as the only execution device that achieves a death “instantaneously”. The simple act of a blade cutting through the neck renders a body lifeless, and, though the action is callous, it is also immediate, and one suspects, painless. Donald Trump even mimed the action of a guillotine at a rally as he denounced late-term abortion, suggesting, falsely, that doctors and mothers decide if the baby should be executed. Indeed, firing squads and electrocution, lethal gas and hanging act as alternative execution methods today, but the primary option is lethal injection because it is deemed more humane. The injection sequence: barbiturates, an anesthetic agent, knocks a person unconscious and pancuronium bromide, a paralytic agent, paralyzes the skeletal muscle before potassium chloride sends the person’s heart into cardiac arrest. A lethal injection -its entire sequence- directly conflicts with what Derrida wants, “nothing but an instant”. Though the guillotine is painted as the most gruesome form of execution throughout history, is it, in fact, the best painkiller?

I think so. As Derrida suggests, death by the guillotine means there will be no pain. Had he heard of the botched executions of Campbell and Broom or Miller’s plea for an instantaneous ablation via gun or at least injection, would have likely suggested the guillotine as not only the most effective method for execution but the most effective painkiller.

Albert Camus would disagree with Derrida. In Reflections on the Guillotine, he recalls his father growing sick and distraught after witnessing an execution by the guillotine. This irritated Camus who questioned the purpose of the device: “When the extreme penalty simply causes vomiting on the part of the respectable citizen it is supposed to protect, how can anyone maintain that it is likely, as it ought to be, to bring more peace and order into the community?” Camus’ outrage over the guillotine seems to arise not only from its cruel objective but also from the discomfort it inflicts on those witnessing the execution and his father. Is Camus suggesting that the anesthetics are as important for those watching and killing than those who are being killed? He favors lethal injection for its “decency” but to whom is it decent? Is Camus suggesting anesthetics (relief of pain) are as important for the audience as for those preparing to die?

Derrida views anesthetics as a mechanism to nullify pain, “in the sense of canceling (…) making invisible, insensible, non-phenomenal, non-appearing”. But what if the attempts to make pain “invisible” fail? In the cases of Campbell and Broom, the prison officials botched attempts to anesthetize them created more pain and, with their re-instituted death sentences pushed to a later date in time- the question of “when will death come upon me” - caused more suffering. In this way, anesthetics are useless for those being executed and benefit only the executioners. Anesthetics only dull or obliterate the immediate pain of death and dying, not the pain that comes from the waiting, from the expectation of death. Indeed, it is the psychological pain that is worse or the uncertainty that makes Derrida’s argument of the guillotine as the ultimate painkiller both logical and compassionate.

Is real pain imaginary? Is the moment of pain one feels leading up to death a phantasm of the mind from fear? What would happen if fear was replaced with relief? In “A Predicament”, Edgar Allen Poe diametrically opposes Derrida’s idea of “instant” death” with Zenobia’s slow decapitation. There is no anesthetic, painkiller or pathos. There is no suppressing time to suppress pain; however, like Derrida, he describes the blade decapitating her body as a source of relief for Zenobia. In this instance, though, the work of the blade is slow while nonetheless decisive. The slow amputation allows Zenobia the time to reflect: “my sensations were those of entire happiness, for I felt that in a few minutes, at furthest, I should be relieved from my disagreeable situation”. Was Poe suggesting that painkillers prevent us from feeling what one needs to feel at the moment of death? Are the mind and body most free and happy in their final moments, anesthesia-free? Or, on the other hand, is pain as important an aspect of capital punishment as is death itself?

John Wayne Gacy ate a dozen fried shrimps, a bucket of KFC fried chicken, a pound of strawberries and French fries for his last meal. Timothy McVeigh ate two pints of mint chocolate ice cream. Ronnie Lee Gardner ate a lobster tail, steak, apple pie and vanilla ice cream, while insisting on watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Victor Feguer, curiously, requested a single pitted olive. Pairing the habitual event of eating comfort food with the non-habitual event of execution on death row apparently represented a kind of anesthetic for those being executed, though it would not suppress any pain from their looming lethal injections. Setting aside the apparent biblical antecedent for such a practice, one must ask, for whom was this “last supper” beneficial; the condemned or the executioners or, perhaps even, the community at large? Is this why officials pretend to care about a life before taking one; to keep them from entering into the same category as the person sitting across from them, that of killer? Though Derrida opposed the death penalty, I am convinced of his argument that the guillotine’s “instant death” seems to be the most ethical and justified. Like the lives these murderers took, the guillotine allows the convicted no time to ease into death. Derrida asks, “When?” The guillotine answers, “Right now.”

Today, capital punishment in the United States doesn’t offer an execution method that guarantees instant death. Lethal injection, though fraught with potential delays and complications, has become the widespread method. Perhaps, Camus had a better idea: “An anesthetic that would allow the condemned man to slip from sleep to death (which would be left within his reach for at least a day so that he could use it freely (…) would assure his elimination”. Is letting those condemned administer their own injection a more humane option? It could certainly help solve Derrida’s issue of time. It seems those on death row want to die fast. Romell Broom wanted officials to find his vein so to end his wait, or his suffering, during his failed execution attempt. David Earl Miller pleaded that the quickest method be used in his execution and yet he was given the longest, most painful execution: electrocution. Without the instantaneity of the guillotine or the right to choose when or how they will die on a day mandated, not by God, but by man, is the ownership of taking their own life the ultimate painkiller?

For Miller, any method of execution “Beats being on death row”. Indeed, Derrida was right: time is suffering.