Exposing Executioners

Science, technology, and life.
April 23 2009 9:40 AM

Exposing Executioners

If we expose the people who tortured terrorism detainees , whom will we go after next? The people who execute death-row prisoners?

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The scenario makes sense. Executioners, like water-boarders, act under government orders. Executioners, unlike water-boarders, aim to kill. They do kill, by the dozens. And public support for the death penalty has been declining . It's not hard to envision a world in which we look back on capital punishment the way we now look back on torture.

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Facing the prospect of exposure, if you were an executioner today, what would you do?

Washington state's executioners have made their decision: They're quitting. Here's the April 2 report from the Seattle Times :

Four people who have volunteered to administer lethal injections to death-row inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla quit their positions this week, apparently worried that their identities could become public as a result of an ongoing court case to decide whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The four resigned Tuesday, which was the deadline Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham had set for the team's records—detailing the members' credentials, qualifications and experience in administering lethal drugs—to be submitted for his review. The state is now without a lethal-injection team. ... "Walla Walla is a small town, so it's not hard to figure out (someone's identity) based on their qualifications," [a state official] said. "They don't want picketers showing up on their front lawns, and they don't want offenders knowing who they are."

In a follow-up story on April 15, the Times reported that a state senator has "introduced a bill that would forbid the release of names and other identifying information of execution team members." But the president of the Washington Coalition To Abolish the Death Penalty isn't backing down. He says, "[T]he public has a right to know whether members of an execution team are qualified to do [their] job."

Is execution as bad as water-boarding? Are executioners as culpable as torturers? Even if they aren't, should their identities be known?

And here's the harder question: Would you give the same answer about people who perform abortions? Do you think it's unfair that threats of exposure and picketing have led many doctors to quit doing abortions?

In the fury of a moral backlash, naming names and holding people accountable feels like the right thing to do. But before you go down that road, remember that the choice of targets won't always be yours.

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