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Some 18 summers ago, at the dawn of the Internet Age, when landlines and faxes were just giving way to cell phones and emails, your chronicler arrived in America, a sole, giddy superpower that hadn't really felt the heat of terrorism first hand. The World Trade Center had been attacked by Ramzi Yousef with a truck bomb a few months earlier, but the bright lights of the Clinton administration really hadn't gotten their head around the emerging threat of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda. With a young Bill Clinton living it up in the White House, it was party time as the nifty nineties roared along on the strength of the tech bubble. Such was the general level of confidence in Fortress America that you could drive on Pennsylvania Avenue past 1600, the White House, with the same freedom as Americans sped past a century ago on horse drawn carts.
On April 19, 1995, a fresh-faced young man named Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City. The explosion ripped the front of the building and killed 168 people, besides injuring some 800.
It was the deadliest act of terrorism on US soil prior to 9/11. It was also the end of easy driving on Pennsylvania Avenue past 1600. The road was turned into a heavily-fortified and policed walkway to prevent a copycat attack, since it was shown that what was essentially a fertilizer bomb parked hundreds of meters away could blow a building to bits. It's another matter that a few years down the line, 19 or 20 young men figured a more lethal way to hurt the US.
Although initial misgivings pointed to the usual suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing, investigators zeroed in on McVeigh. He was apprehended, and the justice system sent him to the gallows — or the newer, American version of it, the short sleepy goodbye.
On June 11, 2001, the world media, present company included, turned up at the US Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, to witness McVeigh's execution. That's where some of us learned the first of many lessons regarding death penalty in America. McVeigh was the first FEDERAL prisoner to be executed by the US government since 1963, although many prisoners had been sentenced to death and executed by states. Apparently , the central (federal) government and state governments played by their own rules. But more of that later.
McVeigh was put to death by way of lethal injection after he devoured his final culinary request — two pints of chocolate chip ice cream. This, as many wise stand-up comics would observe later, is one of the many absurdities about capital punishment. When you are putting a man to death, what's the point in humoring him or honoring some minor, inconsequential last wish? They even swab the convict's arm with alcohol before giving him a lethal injection because, as Robin Williams noted tartly, ‘'they're afraid he's going to get a f*** ing infection."
McVeigh was strapped to a gurney and delivered three injections in a lethal sequence. The process was deliberate and premeditated (pre-medicated , to invoke gallows' humor). In fact, there were no doctors or healthcare professionals on the scene. The life-taking drugs were delivered through an intravenous tube set up by qualified prison staff (a more sanitized equivalent of the hangman). One dose of anesthetic sodium thiapentol put him to sleep and shut his brain down. Another shot of the muscle relaxant pancaronium bromide paralyzed his muscles when he had already gone into coma; and a third dose of potassium chroride stopped his heart. There was nary a twitch. The whole process took five minutes . It was the cleanest, most painless premeditated killing possible.
A decade since that execution, the US has put dozens of men and an occasional woman to death after sentencing them to capital punishment, which is a bit of misnomer since the term originates from the latin 'capitalis' , which means "regarding the head" (the severing of which was the favored method in the old days). But as the McVeigh case showed, shutting down the brain/head with sodium thiapenthol did not do the trick; it required potassium chloride to stop the heart and deliver the final blow. Isn't it astonishing how coldly and unemotionally one can talk of a life being taken?
Across the world though, there is growing momentum against death penalty, an anachronism in a world that spends more money than ever to preserve and save lives. "To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice,” said Desmond Tutu, but this wise counsel has been lost on the four most populous nations on earth — China, India, the US, and Indonesia, a quartet that has voted consistently — including just days before the Kasab execution — to thwart the UN move to put a moratorium on capital punishment with the eventual aim of abolishing it.
Set aside Communist China and Islamist Indonesia, but you have to wonder what possesses the two largest democracies in the world that claim to embrace civil liberties and the sanctity of life with such ardor to support death penalty when a majority of world nations have abolished it. Only about 50 nations practise it; the rest have outlawed it or at least placed a moratorium. Even in the US, depending on the jurisdiction, 17 states do not award capital punishment. And in the decade since McVeigh's execution, support for death penalty is starting to wane, down from 68 per cent to 64.
India has reached its McVeigh moment with the execution of Ajmal Kasab. Regardless of the scale of his crime or his nationality, this is a good time to ask whether it behooves the Indian dharma to take a life in revenge, to continue our mindless acceptance of capital punishment, and even worse, the crude way in which we execute it. Death penalty is the easy way out, both for the victims' families and the perpetrators. It brings closure to only one side.
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