Death Dealing on its Deathbed

It may be wishful thinking, but Who Own Death? author forsees the death industry losing its momentum.

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by Daniel J. Crowley


A retired executioner wakes up in the middle of the night and searches his home for a man he put to death years ago. Haunted by guilt, he later says, "Being an executioner is like being in a car wreck that is going on forever."

A prisoner sentenced to die opts for the electric chair instead of lethal injection. He wants his death to reflect the ugliness of capital punishment

"It's a very awesome experience. I was moved, awed, permanently affected by that happening," says one prosecutor after helping sentence someone to death.

A prison warden says, "A warden can't be a warden and a killer too."

Speaking to an audience of several hundred at Indiana University in January, Robert Jay Lifton used the experiences of these individuals to illustrate the subject of his new book, Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions. Lifton, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the City University of New York and the Mount Sinai Medical Center, is a prolific and provocative author whose work often addresses the effects on individuals or groups of people who are acted upon by extreme historical events. His earlier subjects have included survivors of the Hiroshima bombing, medical doctors in Nazi Germany, returning Vietnam veterans, and members of the religious cult Aum Shrinrikyo in Japan.

In his most recent work, Who Owns Death?, which he co-authored with Greg Mitchell, Lifton tackles the death penalty in the United States, and is concerned with the consequences of the killing process for those who participate in it. His book addresses individuals at every level of the capital punishment system, including executioners, prosecutors, judges, juries, defense attorneys, state legislators, governors, and citizens who vote for death-penalty proponents.

"Who Owns Death? implies that there is something wrong about anybody owning death," Lifton said. "I think the death penalty is a perceived illusion of controlling something that is the illusion of something out of control. The death penalty means killing."

Applying psychological methods to historical questions and influenced by the ideas of the renowned and late psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, Lifton said that America's fascination with the death penalty stems from a combination of a habit of violence rooted in the country's founding, the creation myth being perpetuated, the Evangelical tradition, and a good and evil polarization in society that is "illusory but real in feeling."

"The death penalty is a concrete act, a sense of doing something, and that's hard to let go of," he said. "But it's much less solid than it used to be."

Lifton spoke about "a struggle between feeling and non-feeling" or "selective professional numbing" that individuals involved in the capital punishment system undergo. This doubling of oneself is particularly strong for the executioner. The newcomer is often socialized into the killing process during his first time in the death chamber by going with a more experienced executioner. Lifton discussed how executioners and prison wardens go through a desensitizing process where the execution becomes task-oriented and marked by a high degree of anonymity.

"They try to share the responsibility, and above all not to take individual responsibility," Lifton said. "But there can be a collective taint."

Throughout his hour-long lecture, Lifton, discussed how everyone involved bears responsibility for the weakness and inequity of the capital punishment system. As for clergymen who are in the middle of the process, Lifton said that all religions "can be punitive and narrowly moralistic or opening out and compassionate."

He was particularly critical of the medical profession. He likened physicians' compliance in executions with the Nazi slogan, "A syringe belongs in the hands of a physician," adding that "Doctors are dangerous when they are enlisted by destructive groups."

Lifton mentioned how, historically, physicians have helped invent many of the ways to put someone to death. The guillotine was named after a doctor, a dentist played a central part in creating the electric chair, the gas chamber was developed from use of gas in World War I, and lethal injection was the work of an Oklahoma anesthesiologist, he said.

"The whole medical profession is tainted by all this. The doctor becomes the cover, the way of medicalizing the situation," Lifton said.

Jurors, Lifton pointed out, consistently feel that the death penalty is beyond them and they can experience post-traumatic symptoms after sentencing someone to death years later.

As for proponents of the death penalty, he said people have a psychological need to believe it will deter crime. And the idea of closure, according to Lifton, doesn't exist when somebody in one's family is murdered. Instead, the means of surviving such an event is through non-violent conflict resolution rather than violence.

Capital punishment, Lifton said, "Is bad for our minds. It brings out our angry, violent and sadistic tendencies." He used the example of Timothy McVeigh, whose execution is scheduled for May 16 in Terra Haute, Ind., as a form of false witness.

"[Capital punishment] doesn't do what we say it will do," Lifton said. "McVeigh wants to be a martyr. Sometimes the very idea of the death penalty can be attractive."

Lifton applauded Illinois Gov. George Ryan's decision to put a moratorium on the death penalty last year, which he said has become both a model for other places and important facet of the recent and increasing anti-death penalty sentiment in the United States. Although Lifton told the audience that he is neither an optimist nor a pessimist, he said there is a general shift in consciousness regarding the death penalty that not even the new Bush administration may be able to resist.

"It was informative," said Lynn McWhorter, a doctoral student in educational psychology at Indiana University. "[Lifton] brought a perspective that I hadn't previously thought about - the psychological effects of other people involved and how you're creating so many more victims."

On every level the death penalty is antagonistic to democracy, Lifton said, and that this feeling of unease, which many Americans are experiencing is a necessary step to getting rid of it.

This article was previously published in

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