Wayne Hsiung

Published on:

May 12, 2014

Is there a way to execute "humanely"?

 Nearly as many prisoners are killed at this location in Texas than the rest of the country combined.
Nearly as many prisoners are killed at this location in Texas than the rest of the country combined.


by Wayne Hsiung

I got my start as an activist many years ago as an anti-racism and capital punishment activist. Journalism students at Northwestern University had identified multiple prisoners on death row in Illinois who, after cursory examination, were plainly innocent of their crimes. And Illinois ultimately issued a moratorium on executions because of the outcry. (The moratorium has subsequently turned into complete abolition.) My participation was relatively trivial -- attending rallies, workshops, and protests -- but I was struck by the moral confidence of the movement's message. There was no discussion of compromise or reform in our campaigns. Innocents were about to be killed, after all, so we were not afraid to demand what we believed was right: the absolute end to a brutal and bigoted practice. 

One of the things that strikes me about the debate on capital punishment, even looking on things 15 years later, is that defenders of the status quo use the same tactics that they always have in the face of progressive activists. Defenders suggest that a fundamentally corrupt practice or institution can be reformed. This is as true of human rights causes as animal rights, as the recent uproar over a terribly botched execution in Oklahoma shows. A blown line caused the prisoner to writhe and gasp as poisons flowed through his body. He woke up from what was supposed to be an unconscious state and moaned "Oh man" while doctors struggled to kill him. (What ever happened to the Hippocratic Oath? "First, do no harm.") And yet defenders of state killing gave the same line: "The problem is not the practice. It's the way it was implemented!" While deceptively appealing to many members of the public, the New York Times also shows us the result of accepting this dialogue: the ruthless efficiency of Texas's killing machine. Administrators from other states literally travel to Texas to learn how to kill. 

What this example shows me is that movements that succeed must frame the debate strongly on their own terms. Getting sucked into the dialogue of reform can reinforce the legitimacy of oppression and violence. And while particularly graphic examples of "botched" implementation can be powerful, as in the case of the wrongly convicted Illinois inmates, those examples have to be used on behalf of a strong demand and message if we are to achieve robust and long-term change. We can't lose the forest for the trees. We can't forget about strategy as we refine our tactics. 

That is precisely what DxE hopes to do for the animal rights movement. And while our It's not Food, It's Violence campaign is the most prominent example, to date, of our attempts to reinvigorate our movement behind a stronger message, we -- and the other remarkable activists in our network -- have many more things to come. Stay tuned....