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The Crisis in Capital Cruelty or How Europe is Slowly Banning the American Death Penalty

By William Watkin.

 

 

When I was a child we used to play a gruesome game. Of a weekend you would often find me, my siblings and the occasional honoured guest, lined up on the wall of our back garden. Whoever was ‘It’ would go down the line and ask, in a tone hardened with menace, ‘What do you want to be killed by?’ Each child would choose a method of execution and the executioner would shoulder a rifle, fling some daggers, jazz up a flamethrower or what have you, ‘killing’ the person in question. The convicted would then dramatically perform their death with all the ham and trimmings they could muster. The winner was the best die-er.

I was particularly good at this game. I could really throw myself into a poisoning. If you tried to stab me, you had a West Side Story jazz-fight on your hands, before the inevitable up-to-the-hilt in my gut and down I would go. The elegance of my firing squad, almost Beckettian in its reduced action, was deemed powerful and intense. Boy could I writhe on our small, sparse lawn. Man would I moan, as the noose was draped about my neck. I died countless times in innumerable different ways as I grew up and eventually out of the game, yet never once did I, or any of my fellow delinquents, request the lethal injection.

A Crisis in Capital Punishment

Clearly, an impassively administered injection did not appeal to our sense of drama. Given free rein across the full menu of annihilation, why would I want to act out the lethal injection? You just lie down in a room smelling of chemicals, and they pump a few drugs into you. Where’s the fun in that?

The banality of death by lethal injection which disallows it from tasteless child’s play, at the same time recommends it as the primary mode of state-sponsored murder in the US. The almost asymbolic nature of the injection is an important by-product of the method’s supposed humanity and efficiency. States want us to think it a pretty mundane task to eliminate the most ‘dangerous’ of our citizens; a run-of-the-mill medical procedure, like having your braces tightened or your ears syringed.

In avoiding the death injection as a child for all these reasons, in retrospect I realise I was missing a trick. For it turns out that lethal injections are not so ‘ho-hum’ after all. That they are regularly botched, with gruesome consequences, is something I could have done a lot with back then. Indeed the difficulty of killing someone through the injection of a compound of drugs such as pentobarbital and potassium chloride, has become so pronounced that, as I write this, the whole practice has been suspended across the majority of states in the US that had previously used the injection as their main mode of execution.

When we look back, we might note that the first few years of the second decade of this new millennium marked a quiet revolution in the abolition of the death penalty in America, and all because of the controversy surrounding what was supposed to be the most scientific and dispassionate of all execution methods: the lethal injection. Here then is the story of the crisis in capital punishment or how America banned the death penalty without even trying.

You just can’t get the staff

The rate of executions has been decreasing in America for a couple of years now. Some states have just stopped executing. Others such as Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, Maryland and New York have gone even further and taken the death penalty off the statute books. The result is that only a handful of states, die-hard vengeful places like Florida, Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, still doggedly pursue death by lethal injection. The reasons for this are not moral, legal or philosophical. Rather, the slow collapse of one of America’s most cherished and reviled institutions, death row, is due to primarily managerial reasons, specifically the meat and potatoes of any failing business model: supply of stock and training of staff.

There are two fundamental problems with the lethal injection in the US today. Either you can’t get the drugs or, if you can, you just can’t get them in the arms of the accused, without yourself being accused of breaking the eighth amendment, forbidding cruel and unusual punishment. How did we get to this pretty pass, committed as we have been to kill criminals whatever the cost?

Considering the promise of efficiency that is part and parcel of the medicalisation of the death penalty with the development of the lethal injection, it is surprising to note that, according to Austin Sarat, 7% of all lethal injections have been ‘botched’ as opposed to 3% of all other methods. One possible problem with the lethal injection is that to kill someone in this way you need expertise, training and of course the will to kill. Naturally doctors come to mind for the first two qualifications, but they are mainly interested in preserving life and appear to have an issue with overseeing the violent wastage of the vital spark whose guttering they have encouraged with such passion and commitment on the ‘outside’. While those of us who are gung-ho to kill a fellow citizen tend not to have technical knowhow beyond entry level handguns, kitchen knives and of course driving whilst off your biscuits.

I don’t want to be unduly controversial but the truth is, most people don’t really mean to kill and are not particularly skilled at it. In fact some of the best in the country for this job are the very prisoners you are trying to have shut of. Has anyone considered suggesting the possibility of a kind of penal viscous circle, with murderers co-opting to kill other murderers, honing a skill-set they already have, perhaps earning minimum wage, and setting them up for a productive life on the outside—possibly, if they are white, in the police force?

To protect the condemned and paradoxically secure their quality of life in their final moments, in the past medical professionals would attend executions but they are now able to refuse to do so. Fully versed in the American pastime of loophole spotting, the various professional bodies governing medical practitioners of all levels have banned participation in executions as being in breach of their ethical standards, allowing doctors, nurses and so on the ability to say no to helping kill a convicted serial killer, without having to declare any kind of moral objection in the practice of killing serial killers.

The lack of technical knowhow in the killingroom I suppose would inevitably lead to more botching in what is a quasi-scientific process. Yet is it that technical to insert an IV drip and then press a button? If you can start a car, can’t you kill a man as well? Mark Katz for example, a physician’s assistant in North Carolina, says ‘It is not anything real technical. It’s just finding a vein and just putting medicine in it.’ Low-level medical staff do this every day without difficulty, so too, for the most part, do junkies. Actually, it is the very ordinariness of the process that has promoted doctors, anaesthesiologists and now pharmacists to take a stand and refuse to participate when it comes to killing someone. One reason given by Bill Fassett, emeritus professor at Washington State, is that the whole thing has become so easy and so straightforward that the very efficiency of the procedure is now immorally asymbolic. ‘It’s like we’re not really executing,’ he says. ‘We’re sort of like taking Spot to the vet. We’re just putting him to sleep, and that’s not true.’

There is an obvious conflict here between a state’s preference for a medicalised mode of execution and the medical profession’s reservations. The lack of symbolic power is itself, paradoxically, powerfully symbolic for the state. What it actually does is disassociate state killing from violence, making an execution a medical procedure with no violence attendant on it beyond the insertion of a needle into the arm. It is this asymbolia that doctors, quite rightly, want to put a stop to. Killing another human being should never be just another day at the office.  And in the case of Clayton Lockett, it was not.

 

Death by Botching

The death by botching of Clayton Lockett was as unpleasant and sordid as the crimes he was convicted of. A rapist and murderer, some might think he deserved the painful ignominy with which he was, eventually, dispatched, on 29th April 2014 in the state of Oklahoma. Yet it is hard to say if his suffering was due to lack of good stock or good staff. Certainly Oklahoma were using a never before tried experimental cocktail of three drugs administered under the name of ‘lethal’ injection: midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride (in case you want the recipe). Justifying their claim to be The Sooner State, they were responding to a national shortage in the drugs normally used for this procedure, and so were instead kind of making it up as they went along. And as they went along, things went very wrong.

However, before they even administered the drugs to Lockett to see how they killed, Lockett was subject to torments that appear to have nothing to do with chemistry and everything to do with HR and perennial staff training shortfalls. On the 29th of April the poorly-paid functionaries with their hearts in the wrong place of Oklahoma State Pen., abandoned by the doctors and nurses they had once relied on, found their hands shaking and memory of their ‘How to kill: Nice and easy does it’ seminar scrappy, as they tried to insert a needle into the arm of Clayton Lockett and force those untested drugs into his main artery. Tried and failed. Those badly-trained but kill-happy staff couldn’t effectively insert the IV line. Then when the line was in, they found that they didn’t quite have the right equipment. I know what you are thinking; this is an inept way to make a cappuccino, let alone to kill a man.

Eventually, after what I imagine was an increasingly desperate sequence of jabbing and scrabbling, they found a vein in Lockett’s groin, at which point the warden asked for a ‘modesty sheet’. Various reports of what happened next are surprisingly coy considering a man’s life was at stake. I will spare the reader’s intelligence by wilfully invoking their blushes. To get the needle into Lockett’s traumatised and tense body they had to pull his pants down. Then, under the heat of the moment they forgot that they were being watched, and fiddled around the groin area of the prisoner such that his genitals were there for all to see. Even die-hard addicts, I hear, struggle to shoot-up down there so I suspect this took some time.

The warden panicked, not because they were botching a life—to botch means to blemish, fumble and patch-up (all three are relevant here)—but because the prisoner’s bits were on show. The provision of the sheet preserved Lockett’s modesty, perhaps, but it meant that the staff couldn’t see what they were doing and so botch upon botch was perpetrated until, after sixteen minutes of this appalling vaudeville, the blinds were drawn.

The Modesty Sheet

There is a complex interplay of occlusion and display as regards Lockett’s execution and indeed modern practices of capital punishment across the US. These days executions in general take place behind closed doors and, with the increase in outcry over botched injections, are now often protected through questionable laws of secrecy. Yet no one dies alone when a state kills. There is a difficult balance to be struck between the reduction of these deaths as public acts of spectacle, and the need for transparency as regards legal and ethical due process. Ironically, every execution is thoroughly observed in terms of its privacy.

The need to observe capital punishment versus the layering of its withdrawal from public life—modesty sheets, closed rooms, blinds, observers, secrecy laws and so on—tells a story as to the hold the activity has had over the popular imagination for centuries. Central to public execution all the way down the line of its horrible history has been that it was always a spectacle, a show, not a legal or mortal judgement. There is no point proving your absolute power by capriciously torturing then murdering your citizens, if the other citizens are not there to see your power in full drag up on the stage.

However, when execution was decoupled from torture in the early 19th century, so began an inexorable process of placing the act of killing behind closed doors, completed by the medicalisation of capital punishment in the seventies. Partly this was because it was seen as demeaning and cruel to let the crowds of Texas bay and bellow at you during your last moments on this earth. But it was also because of the ambivalent nature of violence that had always haunted the act of capital punishment, threatening to blur boundaries between illegitimate criminal acts and justified sovereign retribution. Don’t kill your subjects and they start to doubt your power. Kill them too zealously and they might question your legitimacy. Really, sometimes, you wonder why you even bother.

A lot of violence all in one go in public was usually the preferred option, but sometimes sovereigns got the balance wrong. After all, they are seldom the brightest. Especially when executions were botched, crowds would get restless. They might even take the side of the convicted, turning on the executioner, and releasing the condemned. And if the executioner was first, then the prince could be next. Over time states became desperate to get their violence off-stage, realising that when they took a life they trod a fine line. Yes, the death of a thief or regicide put a halt to the possible cycle of violence unpunished crimes are thought to unleash, and allowed a governing authority to flex their muscles to keep the plebs on message, but get the sums wrong and the cycle of violence might turn on its axis and engulf the state itself. Simply put, when it comes to violence, it is often hard to tell the difference between criminals and kings.

Putting state-sponsored death behind closed doors was, if you will, one immense modesty sheet composed of a tightly woven fabric of medical professionalism, faux ethics and jurisprudence, which is why the blinds cannot be drawn on any execution unless an emergency dictates. Although watching death is banned for the wider public, the families demand the right to be able to witness the process to attain what these days we call ‘closure’, which is psychobabble for revenge. While the law demands that due process is observed so that the rights of the accused can be protected up to the moment when their right to live becomes, effectively, the right to die, in the proper way, in the correct arena, at the hands of ‘professionals’. Clayton Lockett wasn’t granted these rights.

On that fateful late April day behind the curtain belatedly called for by the warden the botching went up a notch. It took nearly an hour to find a vein. I am looking for one now. Here it is, less than ten seconds, and I was able to keep my trousers on. During this interminable search it was observed that the IV had infiltrated tissue, which meant the treatment would fail and probably produce undue suffering. Outside the chamber, the angels of death, corrections director Robert Patton and general council Steve Mullins, argued and then agreed to stay the execution. Unfortunately, in the meantime, what the uniformed murderers had been unable to achieve through intention, they had brought about by ineptitude. Clayton Lockett, after over an hour of torture and humiliation, had died of a heart attack. By the end of the execution turned Grand Guignol, you would have needed a modesty sheet the size of the wide-open plains of the Sooner State itself to hide the blushes of every single ‘professional’ involved. It is clear that on April 29th, 2014 Clayton Lockett was well and truly botched.

 

How Europe is Slowly Banning the Death Penalty in the US

Why were the staff at Lockett’s execution so antsy? Was it because they were conscious that they were exposed, behind closed doors, on the national stage, using for the first time, as they were, an untested combination of lethal drugs to kill Clayton Lockett? If so, how did we get here? The logjam on the green mile, which means that bit by bit the death penalty itself is suffering death by suspension, does not mark softening or indeed maturation on the part of the citizenry or the state judiciaries of America. Rather, the go-slow on death row is the result of a powerfully contemporary set of geopolitical circumstances, the result, indeed, of an ethico-democratic world-war being waged between America and Europe.

The primary means of execution in the US is lethal injection. Other forms of execution, most famously the electric chair, have been deemed unconstitutional over the years. A lethal injection is usually administered through a combination of three drugs, a barbiturate, a paralytic and a potassium solution. Since 2009 these were habitually pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, although several states got away with only one or two of these. In each case however it is pentobarbital which is the crucial drug. As the unwilling yet unrepentant father of the lethal injection, Dr. Jay Chapman, says of the three drug combination he innovated in the seventies: ‘We simply took the standard set for anaesthesia in surgical procedures, then all we did was take the amounts of drugs to lethal levels recommended by a toxicologist’. It was neat, fairly quick, and mostly painless. A better death you could not get.

The intervention of medicine on state-sponsored murder in the early seventies was significant because it marked the final historical break with execution as the end-point of sovereign torture as a means of a public spectacle of absolute power. Although torture disappeared from European executions nearly two centuries ago, the torture-taint has never been entirely bleached from the winding sheet, so to speak. Throughout the early decades of the last century there was still a whiff of unchecked violence in the manner in which prisoners were killed—firing squads, gas chambers, electric chairs—which the American state struggled to balance with its overly self-conscious relation to democracy under the sanction of God.

Enter God’s most recent innovation: science. Once the hang-man’s hood was replaced by a white coat in popular imagination, killing became clean and surely could no longer be called cruel. All the lethal injection did was put you to sleep, and then fail to wake you up. Wouldn’t we all prefer that to a demeaning death, writhing in pain whilst off our heads on morphine as cancer consumes us cell by cell? Sometimes I think if death row could be booked online, the webpage would crash from too much traffic.

The problem is that science is not an organ of the state yet. Okay, it took the medical and pharmaceutical industry several decades to put the threads of the argument together but finally, over the last few years health-givers, as we saw, have started to deny being willing parties to death-deliverance as well. Not only have they refused to oversee executions, there is also a wider issue that has had a much greater impact. The main drug used in the lethal injection, pentobarbital, is almost exclusively manufactured in Europe, and in the last few years, declaring war on the American way of life, European drug companies backed by the UN have churlishly refused to supply the drug to American prisons in case they use them for you know what. State pens became victim to a double-whammy: even if they could get the staff, they could no longer get the stock.

Pentobarbital was not developed to make it easy to kill people, quite the contrary. It is an exceptionally useful life drug being a highly effective sedative and a successful treatment for seizures as well. With this on their minds and backed by the power of the UN, European drug companies declared themselves unhappy with being unwitting participants in a practice outlawed across all European nations, and since 2011 the provision of pentobarbital by Europe to the US has been halted.

As supplies dwindled in the drug-cupboards of Utah, Oklahoma and Ohio, the crisis slowly gathered pace becoming acute in 2013. Effectively, Europe had slowly banned the lethal injection in the US by refusing to furnish it, over several years, with its key drug, leaving the needle suspended above the circulatory system of crime and extreme punishment that had kept the thirst for a judiciary of revenge quenched for decades. In so doing we Europeans have won the first engagement in a new kind of warfare: managerial, professionalised, report-supported and committee-approved Biowar! And we have done so by breaking what I had come to believe was a universal human law, that of profit before all else.

Biowar! 

Biowar is not to be confused with biological warfare. Biowar is concerned with the day to day management of populations and health, rather than the infiltration of the water-system by zombie-producing viruses. You don’t hear much about this Biowar. In contrast to ISIS decapitating and immolating its victims, our Biowar is boring, technical and small scale, but don’t underestimate how valuable Europe’s victory has been to us. Now that no one wants to buy our material products, if we are to maintain an economic and thus political authority in the world, Europe needs to protect its other most valuable commodities, healthy bodies and healthy states. Europe may not be able to compete with the US in terms of military might or economic prowess, but as regards democracy as commodity, one of the most significant health and power generators of the last decade or more, we now hold the upper-hand. Europe has tamed the wild-west and made the old west the seat of the world’s moral power once more. It is only a matter of time before you Americans surrender. As soon as you Yanks take the time to find out that you are at war with us, you will see that you have already lost.

It was a noble defeat. You fought well. The US did not take this restriction of their democratic right to kill lying down, if your pardon the pun. If the death penalty was going to die by managerialism and committee, due to juridical loopholes and creative moral accounting, where better than America to mount a fight-back? The first things that states like Oklahoma did was try to synthesise the original three-drug cocktail, using un-named US drug companies in a semi-legal fashion to replace the silver-bullet that is pentobarbital. Plucky as ever, Oklahoma stepped up to the gurney with their untested three-drug alternative and tried to repel the European moral advance. But, as we saw, things did not go well. Ooook-lahoma, I know there’s never been a better time to start in life, as the song goes, but one senses next time you should look before you, hastily, leap.

 

Air Hunger

If the botching of the execution of Lockett coincided with experimenting in a new three-drug alternative to the tried and tested triplet, it is not entirely clear if his terrible death was the result of those drugs in particular. Ohio changed all that with the controversial execution of Dennis McGuire by drug-induced asphyxiation on 16 January 2015.

Two drugs were combined, for the first time, to kill McGuire, a sedative called midazolam, also used in the Lockett case, and a morphine derivative called hydromorphone. The administering of the drug was a little more professional, meaning that the shocking spectacle of McGuire’s subsequent slow death, which in any normal world would be described as torture, can entirely be put down to experimental drug regimes. It took McGuire twenty six minutes to die, the longest execution Ohio has ever known. During those many minutes McGuire, thanks to the inefficacy of midazolam and hydromorphone to rapidly kill, suffered a painful and terrifying death watched by family and friends.

Hydromorphone is a great drug to get high on, it is not so good at killing folks. McGuire did not shuffle off his mortal coil but rather writhed with it in violent skirmish. First his stomach swelled up and then he appeared to fight for breath. His fists were constantly clenching, he audibly gasped, struggling for breath. Over a period of more than ten minutes, Dennis McGuire slowly suffocated in front of a small, invited audience. One in attendance was his pastor, Lawrence Hummer, who said afterwards that ‘There is no question in my mind that Dennis McGuire suffered greatly over many minutes’.

A likely cause of this slow-torture is the use of midazolam to replace the no-longer available pentobarbital. Like pentobarbital, midazolam is an anaesthetic drug used for the treatment of seizures. It is regularly used because of its efficacy in treating children and the critically ill. Its benefits as a sedative for those whose grasp on life is contingent due to not enough years under the belt or too few days left on the calendar, is precisely what makes the drug inappropriate as a means of murdering someone. If hydromorphone is the party drug, midazolam is its gentle comedown best suited for those who are physically vulnerable and need tender care. McGuire was not one of those. He was convicted of the rape and murder of Joy Stewart. Stewart was 22 years old. She was 30 weeks pregnant. Her unborn child died in her womb.

As with hydromorphone, few seem to think that midazolam is a good killing drug. Even worse the combination of hydromorphone and midazolam can result in ‘air hunger’. Air hunger is a chilling addition to the modern lexicon. It is not that McGuire was suffocating but that not quite enough air getting to his lungs produced the powerful sensation of suffocation. What this means is that McGuire’s life was taken by the usual means, an aesthetic plus a sedative, but his body was tortured by the sensation of choking over an extended period of time. In effect, death by ‘air hunger’ is death by lying. Your body tells you that you can’t breathe, and eventually your heart believes it. McGuire was not so much killed by the untested drugs administered by Ohio State, as forcibly convinced by them to die. Forcibly convinced, that’s another way of saying tortured right?

The ‘Fuck Your Breath’ Axiom

Dennis McGuire believed he was suffocating to death until his heart gave out. He lay there ‘flopping around like a landed fish’—as ‘executee’ John Albert Taylor memorably described death by lethal injection, justifying his choice of an Ohio firing squad—tenaciously amphibian in his hesitation between life and death. It was not so much that McGuire was executed, it was more like he was denied a right, the right to breathe. After all, who says air should be free to all at the point of usage? If water is a resource whose theft, poisoning and geopolitical evaporation means populations may soon be going to war over it its scarce supply, why shouldn’t air be next?

McGuire’s death, therefore, raises an important ethical question for our age. What, after all, are your rights citizens? The right to freedom, to wealth, to happiness, to life itself free from cruelty and pain. Those are pretty good rights, but they are not entry-level, not any more. In recent months America, responding positively to the loss of its moral prowess in the Biowar with Europe, has perhaps led the world in developing an entirely new, bio-ethical human right: the right to breathe.

McGuire is not alone in being punished through the denial of the basic right of breath. In April of this year Eric Harris was running from the Tulsa police. The incident was filmed. You can see Harris being brought to the ground and then a shot goes off. Harris says in disbelief: “He shot me! Oh my God, I can’t breathe.” To which one cop replies “Fuck your breath”. Harris later died in custody.

 

 

This is an execution of a novel kind, the next logical step after death by botching or air hunger. I think it could be the next big thing, deathwise. People speak of reintroducing the firing squad to fill in while Europe is being so greedy with its barbiturates. And like many I am appalled at the idea. The firing squad is so last-century, far too static and literary for modern death culture. For a generation raised on Grand Theft Auto and POV porno, there is little meaning in lining some human up against a wall and ordering five slugs banged into them. No, much better to go all Hunger Games on their ass, set them free on the streets, give ‘em a head start and then call the cops to try and gun them down. Oh, and remember to film then post the whole thing.

Historians have often noted a symbolic narrative at the heart of punitive measures. Heretics have their tongues ripped out, thieves lose a hand and the like. There is something in this because, after all, punishment alone is meaningless. Is it revenge, is it redress, is it preventative or does it simply avoid feuding? None of the experts appear to agree. My take is that punishment is poeisis, an art form, it tells the community something about themselves that in normal circumstances they might never admit to. This being the case I believe that each community should have the punishment that best suits them. A kind of international, judicially legitimate ‘What do you want to be killed by?’

In Eric Harris’ case the accused is spared the living torture of the American penal system by being gunned down there and then on the spot. His innocence need not be debated as he is a young black male involved in petty crime who is already a convicted felon. It is statistically probable that, had he been given enough breath to do so, Harris would have spent much of his adult life incarcerated. He may eventually have become the perpetrator of the kind of violent crime that means he would have to be executed anyway. Why take the time, risk and expense to find out?

Also it’s more sporting this way. He has a chance of getting away, at least until the next time the cops don’t like the look of him. Did I mention he was black? They are never going to like the look of him are they?

Harris’ death tells us so much about the despised other at the heart of the American judicial system, that enemy within whom they will never be at peace with. He is not just a waste of space he is a waste of breath. At the same time, when the police call out “Fuck your breath!” they reveal a subtle understanding of the still nascent field of biorights. The Fuck Your Breath axiom takes us all back to school to rethink entirely the nature of punishment in all its forms.

The bioright to air, or not in the case of American black males, has been under debate for some time amongst the leading community of philosophers in the world today, the US police force. At a police rally in 2014 some officers wore T-shirts that read ‘I can breathe’, taunting Eric Garner’s last words, who died from suffocation after a choke-hold was placed on him and he repeatedly claimed he was suffocating. It turns out he was right. Taking a dialectical counter-position the African-American community have started to sport T-Shirts echoing Garner’s last words, most notably during the recent protest riots in Ferguson and Baltimore. For once I am not being facetious when I say it is not since Hegel that the dialectic has been used to such purpose and significance in debating what it means to live as a human being on this earth.

What this says to me is that not only was Ohio using an experimental combination of drugs, it was also developing a new line in the symbolic life of capital punishment. As McGuire lay there gasping for breath he was one of the first of many to be executed due to the ‘Fuck your breath’ axiom, applied initially to young black males, now, due to the decision in Europe to refuse the supply of pentobarbital, may be coming soon to a penitentiary near you!

What do you want to live by, America?

These days if you asked me ‘What do you want to be killed by?’ I would have a much augmented repertoire. I could choose botched lethal injection, experimental drug cocktail, even humiliation followed by asphyxiation. I could go further and opt for being a young black male in an American inner city. Or, lest we Europeans become too smug in our Biowar victory, being a five-year old refugee from a geopolitical crisis not of my making and drowning off the shores of Greece in a blow-up boat, overloaded with desperate Syrians, some pregnant women there, lots of kids the same age as my own inconsolable with fear and hunger, all unfit to test the capricious waters of the Mediterranean.

Yet as you get older you are less willing to brave death and more likely to beg for life. I would imagine, as a grown man, I would stay put on that wall, in front of my judges and plea bargain. ‘Don’t kill me’ I would moan. ‘I don’t want to die. I want to live. I want to breathe.’

The state listens patiently to my plea. It takes a good long look at my face. Then it pronounces my sentence: ‘Fuck your breath!’ I fall to the ground, hands round my own throat, taking responsibility for the dirty deed to save the courts, the prisons and the useless executioners the bother. At least if I do it myself, my thinking goes, I know for certain that it won’t be botched.

And there you have the truth of that juvenile game, revealed by the recent crisis in capital cruelty. The answer to what you want to be killed by reveals a deeper truth of a new game I am calling ‘What you want to live by, America?’ Do you want to live by freedom and by justice, or by revenge and a deep hatred for your own citizens that is so poisonous you would even deny them the right to live by the simple act of breathing? Europe awaits your answer, Americans, in the meantime you can’t have our drugs.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

William Watkin is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Philosophy at Brunel University, West London. He is the author of In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde, On Mourning: Theories of Loss in Modern Literature, The Literary Agamben: Adventures on Logopoiesis, Agamben and Indifference: A Critical Overview. He has just completed a forthcoming two-book study of both volumes of Alain Badiou’s Being and Event project. He is currently writing a book on innovations in violence as a tool for the distribution of power at the global and local levels.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016.