Capital punishment has evolved over time, but the progression tends to move in one direction. As we discussed last year, those who believe that the government should have the authority to kill its own citizens have adapted over time to changing norms and technologies. When one method of execution is deemed gruesome, cruel, or of dubious efficacy, policymakers move towards another.
The standards have shifted more than once: from stoning to guillotines, nooses to firing squads, electric chairs to lethal injections. In each instance, the idea has been to make the killing process cleaner and more sanitary.
Occasionally, however, we're confronted with an official who likes the idea of rolling back the clock. Politico reports today that Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) endorses use of the guillotine.
"I think the death penalty should be appropriate for people who kill Mainers," LePage said.... He said he was "appalled" at critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, who are angry over his comments, saying they are protecting drug traffickers. "What we ought to do is bring the guillotine back," he said, interrupting the hosts. "We could have public executions and we could even have which hole it falls in."
It's not altogether clear whether the governor was serious. With Paul LePage, it's often hard to tell.
But the broader point about contemporary conservatives looking backwards for methods of executions is nevertheless true.
When Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) last year raised the prospect of bringing back the electric chair when chemicals for lethal injections are unavailable, Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham University School of Law and a national expert on capital punishment, said something interesting: "[T]hey're going backwards. They're going back to using a method of execution that was basically rejected because it was so problematic. That's never happened before."
As it turns out, some others want to go backwards, too.