The Old Ways

June 22, 2010

This past Friday Ronnie Lee Gardner was shot to death by the State of Utah.

That state had allowed a handful of death row inmates, including Mr. Gardner, the freedom to choose the manner of their executions if, in return, they agreed to withdraw from the courtroom appeals process.

Mr. Gardner elected the firing squad; he spent his final day watching The Lord of The Rings films and reading a spy novel.

Clamorous protest ensued: death penalty opponents denounced the execution as barbaric, while execution advocates insisted the novel method drew attention away from the more-deserving victims.

Each camp has its point, and each point its merit, but neither side has found any fault in Mr. Gardner for requesting a death by firing squad. This might be because, among the ignoble ways in which we live and die these days, an execution by professional riflemen is a comparatively solemn and dignified thing.

Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno is an expert on execution techniques. She has an idea why, despite the controversy generated by the event, nobody has yet disparaged Mr. Gardner for his choice: “When you think of all the [execution] methods, the firing squad would be the most dignified.”

“The anti-death penalty people think it’s barbaric, and the pro-death penalty people think it detracts from capital punishment,” Professor Denno explains. But she believes there is nobility in the squad: “Someone’s standing up and facing his own death.”

Mr. Gardner’s ability to stand up with dignity might be why, though the punditry squawks and warbles, few have probed very far into the circumstances demanding that dignity: what did he do? Why did he do it, when, and how? Stuck in amidst generational shirking and a popular sense of entitlement, the more compelling story here might be a man who decided to calmly face the consequences of his actions and accept them with dignity and composure.

Certainly Mr. Gardner’s crime was reprehensible; he was sentenced to die for it and neither judiciary nor legislature saw fit to extend him leniency or clemency. There was no question of guilt; Mr. Gardner’s last minutes were writ large by every type of media, but he made no final protestations of innocence, or requests for mercy. Asked whether or not he had any last words, he said only “I do not. No.”

But despite the crime, and despite even the criminal, the execution was witness to a kind of stoic dignity rarely still evidenced. Athletes, politicians, financiers, and celebrities make tearful apologies on national television and beg public forgiveness. Famous marriages crumble and the partners escape into therapy of one kind or another rather than accept any type of consequence or accountability: don’t blame me for anything I’ve done, my parents were sub-par.

Governors, mayors, Congressmen, presidents… each step wrongly and grovel loudly, offering reasons, excuses, solutions; anything but dignified responsibility. These Americans, whom we esteem so highly, are barely able to meet the demands of their own lives with any degree of accountability, let alone nobility. Yet Mr. Gardner, a convicted criminal awaiting state-sponsored death, was able to meet not only his life, but his death, with noble dignity.

Perhaps the sensational nature of that death owes less to its circumstances and more to the fact that, having long ago given up for dead the qualities of dignity and responsibility in our leaders, we briefly saw evidence of them again in a condemned prisoner.