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Letter: How Does One Explain Capital Punishment?

To the Editor:

The Valley News makes a crucial point, it seems to me, about the importance of repealing New Hampshire’s capital punishment law when its Jan. 22 editorial says, “the death penalty makes killers of us all.” Ohio, where I lived for many years, prepared in 1995 to begin executing people again after stopping for 32 years following the electrocution of Donald Reinbolt. I remember wondering how I could explain the decision to my grandchildren.

Children are often interested in concrete reality, and they might ask why people prefer lethal injection to the electric chair. In those days, condemned people in Ohio could submit written requests for lethal injection. But I wondered if children might be troubled by picturing a condemned person on a gurney, hooked up to the same kind of intravenous tubes that save lives on television. They might ask what kind of doctors or nurses do it.

There are no easy answers, of course. You might talk about the necessity of doing a difficult, important job to prevent further violence. But a child might wonder why executioners aren’t heroes. Why are they shadowy, anonymous figures if we value what they do? And why don’t we show what they do on television? It would help if you could tell a child that the person being put to death on the gurney is always guilty, but that’s not true. In fact, the usual arguments for the death penalty have been discredited — that it deters, that it saves money, that it assuages grief, diffuses anger, provides “closure” to the victims’ families.

The Russian writer Ivan Turgenev wrote about an execution in Paris in The Execution of Tropmann. He describes the night he spent with the officials responsible for bringing Tropmann to the guillotine and the sudden descent of the heavy blade. When it was over and the officials gathered, he says, “not one of us, absolutely no one looked like a man who realized that he had been present at the performance of an act of social justice: everyone tried to turn away in spirit and, as it were, shake off the responsibility for this murder.”

Maybe the best we can do if we’re asked to explain this kind of thing to children in New Hampshire is tell them that someday they might understand. But we should hope they never do.

William Nichols

West Lebanon