The Failed Experiment; Last Year Only Four Countries Accounted for Nearly All Executions Worldwide: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States

By Quindlen, Anna | Newsweek, June 26, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Failed Experiment; Last Year Only Four Countries Accounted for Nearly All Executions Worldwide: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States


Quindlen, Anna, Newsweek


Byline: Anna Quindlen

You brush up against a lot of weird stuff in the course of child rearing, but one phenomenon that always had me scratching my head was the parents who hit their kids to teach them that hitting was a bad thing.

In their defense, they had a civic model for that kind of bizarre circular reasoning. Americans still live in one of the few countries that kill people to make clear what a terrible thing killing people is.

Hardly any other civilized place does this anymore. In the past three decades, the number of nations that have abolished the death penalty has risen from 16 to 86. Last year four countries accounted for nearly all executions worldwide: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

As my Irish grandmother used to say, you're known by the company you keep.

Last week the Supreme Court agreed to cogitate once more about capital punishment, a boomerang the justices find coming back at them time and time again. This new case is about the way lethal injection is administered. The argument is that even though one drug anesthetizes, a second paralyzes and a third stops the heart, the first is not sufficient to mitigate the pain and the second makes the inmate appear peaceful when he is in agony.

In other words, the case is about whether being put to death hurts. Passing judgment on this particular issue is the equivalent of diagramming an ungrammatical sentence.

Much of the debate about the death penalty since it reared its ugly head again in the '70s has been about whether it is disproportionately meted out to poor minorities, whether it should be permitted for juvenile offenders, whether various methods constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Most of these discussions are designed not to examine underlying deep moral issues but to allow Americans to continue to put people to death and still feel good about themselves.

That's become increasingly difficult. At the same time the court decided to revisit lethal injection, the justices agreed to a federal hearing in the case of a man who has spent 20 years on death row. He was convicted of raping and murdering a neighbor. The prosecution said his semen was found on the dead woman. New DNA tests show that the semen was instead that of her husband, who witnesses say had drunkenly confessed to the murder.

This is just one of a long line of such cases. Accusers recant, guilty parties confess, the lab makes a match that wasn't possible before. …

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The Failed Experiment; Last Year Only Four Countries Accounted for Nearly All Executions Worldwide: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States
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