Last year thirty-one people were executed in the United States. One was gassed, six were electrocuted, one was hanged; the rest were put to death by lethal injection. While all other constitutional democracies have abandoned capital punishment, the United States tenaciously clings to it. We use the death penalty as retribution, but also, as Michel Foucault reminds us, to respond to affronts to our legal regime itself. However, particularly in a constitutional democracy, the deliberate taking of life as an instrument of state policy is an enormous evil. A death penalty democratically administered implicates us all as agents of law's violence. An execution, as Wendy Lesser argues in Pictures at an Execution: An Inquiry into the Subject of Murder, is "a killing carried out in all our names, an act of the state in which we by proxy participate, it is also the only form of murder that directly implicates even the witness, the bystanders."
The fact that the state takes life and the way in which it takes life insinuate themselves into the public imagination, even as the final moments of executions are hidden from public view. This particular exercise of power helps us understand who we are and what we as a society are capable of doing. As Lesser skillfully documents, the largely, though incompletely, hidden moment when the state takes life precipitates, in an age of the hypervisual, a crisis of representation.
Austin Sarat & Aaron Schuster,
To See or Not To See: Television, Capital Punishment, and Law's Violence,
Yale J.L. & Human.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol7/iss2/5