For proponents of capital punishment, the scarcity of execution drugs has become a problem. Pharmaceutical companies generally want their medications to be used to save lives, not deliberately kill people, so they’ve taken steps to prevent state officials from using their products in state-sanctioned lethal injections.
This has led some states — where officials are especially eager to put people to death — to give fresh looks to deadly methods that the United States had previously left behind. As the Associated Press reported, one of the nation’s reddest states has now done exactly that.
Republican Gov. Brad Little signed a bill allowing execution by firing squad, making Idaho the latest state to turn to older methods of capital punishment amid a nationwide shortage of lethal-injection drugs. The Legislature passed the measure March 20 with a veto-proof majority. Under it, firing squads will be used only if the state cannot obtain the drugs needed for lethal injections.
The AP, citing information from the Death Penalty Information Center, added that four other red states — Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma, and South Carolina — also have laws allowing firing squads if other execution methods are unavailable, though South Carolina’s law is currently on hold until ongoing litigation is resolved.
The shortage has prompted other states in recent years to revive older methods of execution. Only Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have laws allowing firing squads if other execution methods are unavailable, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Idaho, in other words, is joining a small club.
The AP’s report added:
Idaho Sen. Doug Ricks, a Republican who co-sponsored that state’s firing squad bill, told his fellow senators Monday (3/20) that the state’s difficulty in finding lethal injection drugs could continue “indefinitely,” that he believes death by firing squad is “humane,” and that the bill would help ensure the rule of law is carried out. But Sen. Dan Foreman, also a Republican, called firing-squad executions “beneath the dignity of the state of Idaho.” They would traumatize the executioners, the witnesses and the people who clean up afterward, he said.
There’s a broader significance to this debate that extends well beyond the Gem State.
Over the course of generations, there’s been a slow effort to make state-sanctioned executions more civilized. There’s been an evolution of sorts, from axes to guillotines. Then there were nooses, followed by firing squads. This gave way to electric chairs, and finally, lethal injections.
The underlying idea was to make the killing of human beings less gruesome and more sterile, less violent and more peaceful. Proponents of the executions could take some solace in this evolution, as if the process of making the killings less ghastly somehow added a degree of legitimacy to the larger endeavor.
The new state measure in Idaho serves as a reminder: The arrow does not always move in a straight line. Sometimes, officials take steps backwards, indifferent to the goals of sterility.
To be sure, there are often incidents in which police officers shoot civilians, but capital punishment offers a qualitatively different dynamic. Officials in Idaho envision a system going forward in which the state will put an unarmed civilian — who is no longer a threat — in front of guns, at which point officials will open fire until the unarmed civilian is dead.
This won’t be the result of an unpredictable confrontation; it will be a vaguely sanitized shooting.
I appreciate the fact that a GOP state senator said firing-squad executions are “beneath the dignity of the state of Idaho,” but the complaint was incomplete: This is beneath the dignity of anyone, anywhere.