Strict punishment, though not exclusively American, is certainly one of America’s most cherished traditions, its virtue even. With the possible exception of what now passes for decent sex, there is little else that quite satisfies the average American like seeing someone get penalized for something. If justice must be slow, and it is indeed slow, then it should at least be painful, the only tangible reward for having endured such pain being the sweet release of death. And no nation deals out death to the guilty with the same fervor and tenacity as America. Indeed, whereas some would argue that America’s technological achievements lie in, say, the Model T or the iPod, I would argue that it better represented by the electric chair or the lethal injection procedure. Yet even I must admit that even these inventions could never surpass the simplicity and the majesty of gallows in a public square.
Though the death penalty is one of the great staples of American society, if not its enduring stability, there is to me a disconnect between its wide support and the way it is carried out.
Your average modern execution is undertaken almost entirely in seclusion with an audience limited to those immediately related to the criminal or his crime(s). The general public, on the other hand, is left to speculate on the properness of the justice dealt and left out of the revelry of its dealing. How indeed could we revel in the sweet irony of Paul Hill’s execution for “executing” an abortionist and his bodyguard? And it hardly seemed fitting that so public a murderer as Ted Bundy should have been given so private a death. These and other executions by the state might as well be legend with no closure gained and no lessons learned. A hanging properly performed and in front of a large audience would go far in celebrating justice met and the upholding of social authority and decency.
A proper execution is one that possesses an equal combination of efficiency and spectacle, an execution that kills and shows that it has killed. Whereas the electric chair has thespectacle, it lacks in efficiency, and while the more-often-used lethal injection is, for the most part, efficient, it could just as well be Benadryl in that cocktail. A hanging by contrast has the right amount of the right components. Like the swing of a hammer onto a nail, a criminal’s hanging is swift and powerful. The clang of the trapdoor and the snap of the rope, though brief, resonate a great distance among spectators, indicating to them that a guilty person has died in front of them. It’s over just as quickly as it began.
Hanging is perhaps the ultimate public gathering conceivable, creating an intimate communal bond far stronger than those derived from a live park concert, a summer fair, a farmer’s market, a church mass or even a graduation. Hangings unite a community not so much in friendship and happiness but in hatred and catharsis. It’s one thing to be relaxed and joyful with one another in most settings, but it is a true testament to the strength of a community (be it a town, a state, etc.) if the members can hate in unison. They stand before the gallows or a tree like a black sea of defiance ready to drown he who has trespassed against them.
This new community dynamic brings no disadvantage to the state, of course, which would have ample opportunity to put on what is effectively a small-scale Two Minutes Hate that not only unites a community against an enemy but also reinforces the state’s authority over it. With a public hanging, the state’s power to kill is made less abstract. Hangings also show the seriousness with which the state upholds its laws. If you murder someone, this is what will happen to you. And while we do execute for murder exclusively, the openness of the execution should indicate that any public disturbance — whether robbery, assault or loitering — will be dealt with severely and just as publicly.
The hanging further solidifies the state’s power with its stark lack of glamor. Such an execution with so little suffering and so little time is less likely to make martyrs out of the guilty. One can recall the video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging to fully understand this. Brought out with no pomp whatsoever and looking weary and pathetic, as though he were about to perform a tedious chore, Saddam was quickly snuffed out, not in a hail of bullets, not in the flames of one of his palaces, but from being tied to a rope at the neck and dropped, his body as breakable as anyone else’s. If one is not sufficiently human enough to feel hatred for a criminal, one will logically show pity, but never respect.
The criminal himself naturally benefits little from this form of execution, but I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t prefer this form over any other. It’s at least far more constitutional. Public hangings are more in keeping with the Eighth Amendment as it is neither as cruel as the gas chamber nor as unusual as the electric chair (or the firing squad used in Utah for that matter). Rather than die in the seclusion of an execution chamber, the guilty will die in the open air with little preparation and procedure and just as little suffering. Though it’s not technically freedom, it might feel like freedom, being able to spend one’s last moments of confinement, let alone life, being able to breathe and to see the sky (assuming he is not masked). It’s almost peaceful, so peaceful in fact that there might be some people willing to give anything to feel that freedom themselves. They might even kill somebody.
Chris R. Morgan is the editor of Biopsy magazine, where this essay was originally published. His writing has appeared in VICE, Bookforum, The Awl, Open Letters Monthly and This Recording.