I don’t have a position on capital punishment. But I find the hubbub over the recent “botched execution” in Oklahoma both gruesomely funny and politically instructive. As is often the case, the ostensible issue is not the real one—and everybody knows it. But since the real issue can’t be addressed, we have shadow debates about phony issues.
The phony issue here is “How much pain should a person feel whilst being executed?” Assuming the execution isn’t particularly grotesque—drawing and quartering, say—I doubt if the object of the exercise much cares. Offered a choice between a harrowing hour-long ordeal that he’ll survive and a peaceful voyage to the undiscovered country, the condemned would no doubt opt for painful survival. The pain is in the execution, not the method.
But the execution can’t be legally attacked, so death-penalty opponents try to stop it by insisting on a condition—absolute painlessness—that seems reasonable but may prove impossible to guarantee. (Which explains why they labor so hard to make unavailable any drugs that could make lethal injection painless.) Judges who may themselves be opposed to the death penalty go along with the subterfuge.
Speaking as a layman, I don’t see why it’s so hard to kill someone painlessly. After all, surgeons cut people open without the patients feeling anything, and people painlessly shuffle off with sleeping pills. What did Dr. Kevorkian know that eludes our current bumbling executioners?
There’s an analogy here with the debate over marijuana legalization. The people who support legalizing medical marijuana argue that it can provide an effective treatment for the pain of chemotherapy. Perhaps they’re right, but that’s a sideshow. Where medical marijuana is legalized, it predictably becomes easy for the healthy to indulge, perhaps with a nod and a wink from an assisting doctor. That was always the real object. And sure enough, legalizing medical marijuana has now led to the general legalization of marijuana in some states (which, as a policy matter, I’m all for).
What’s interesting is the politics. In both cases, frontal assaults on the center were easily beaten back, but guerilla raids on vulnerable flanks succeeded. Those small victories then changed the terms of the larger debate. The lesson? Perhaps the surest way to change opinions is not to challenge them directly—people just dig in—but to work on the fringes where people are less committed: Let’s keep executions, just make them less painful; let’s not legalize marijuana, just allow it where there’s a medical need. As people get comfortable with the small changes, it becomes easier to move them on the big ones. Persuasion is usually a process of step-by-step familiarization with the previously unacceptable view.
On The West Wing grand political values clashed, with one side (usually the liberals) convincing the other through sheer force of argument. But that’s just television politics—a dramatic confrontation leads to a resolution that confirms the audience’s (and Aaron Sorkin’s) pre-existing moral views. I loved The West Wing—Sorkin wrote marvelous comic dialogue for a gifted team of actors—but I never confused it with real politics, where dramatic shifts of opinion seldom happen. Outside of television, democratic politics is largely persuasion and accommodation.