Have you considered capital punishment lately? Most of us don't spend much time thinking about state-sanctioned executions, even though their employment in the United States is thoroughly out of step with all advanced Western countries, keeping us in company with repressive nations like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Even here in my home state of Texas, which is closing in on the execution, since 1982, of its 500th criminal -- well, I'm sure that nearly all of them were guilty -- an ordinary lethal injection is never front-page news.
It takes an unusual case, like Robert Post's, to catch our attention. As reported by Associated Press, Post is an Ohio death row inmate whose lawyers claim that, at 450 pounds, he is too fat to be executed in a humane way. They argue that Post is so heavy he might even collapse the death chamber gurney.
The problem is finding, amid the fat, a suitable vein for injecting the deadly chemicals. In 2007, Ohio executioners took two hours to find a vein of a condemned 265-pound killer.
Post's lawyers contend that he has no veins accessible for injection and that they will resist any effort to "cut down" into his body to find one.
A story like this provides a field day for online commentators, who wonder why Post's executioners can't just shoot a bullet into his brain, at a cost of less than a dollar. Why not hang him? That would probably take his head off. Hit him in the head with a hammer. One hilarious wit suggests a cyanide-laced chocolate cake. Imagine how much fun these guys could have if we were still using the electric chair!
This episode -- and these ignorant, mean-spirited comments -- exemplifies what a grisly and unseemly business killing human beings is, whether or not they deserve it.
All the old arguments against capital punishment still stand up: It works fine for revenge, but it really doesn't serve as much of a deterrent. We've never managed to administer it impartially; while Robert Post happens to be white, in general you're much more likely to be executed if you're black, Hispanic, male or poor.
And we've never figured out how to avoid mistakes when putting people to death. The fact that subsequent evidence or DNA testing regularly exonerate death row inmates or longtime prisoners indicates clearly that at least occasionally innocent people have been executed.
But the real problem with capital punishment is that it looks backward rather than forward. The ascending arc of civilization moves slowly and erratically and its progress is fragile. Still, we've managed to move in the right direction, more or less, with regard to a number of important issues such as women's rights, children's rights, animals' rights, slavery, torture and so on.
We've also stopped executing people for trivial offenses, and we've done away with decapitation, drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, the electric chair and, for the most part, hanging.
At the same time, we've made executions more palatable by moving them out of the public view -- the last public hanging was in 1936 -- and by using less dramatic methods of execution like lethal injection.
But we've never understood that capital punishment isn't about what the criminal deserves as much as it's about what kind of society we want. Everyone's freedom became more secure when we did away with slavery, and our culture's integrity advanced when men gave in to women's demands for the right to vote. Abolishing capital punishment -- a fallible, ineffective practice that brings out the worst in us -- would be one more step in the right direction.
Does Robert Post deserve to die? Probably. But I'm not sure that's my call. Are you certain it's yours? Maybe we'd all be better off if we were a society that is willing to lock people up for as long as necessary but that still reserves final, irrevocable judgment for some wiser, higher power.
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)