The South Carolina Legislature recently voted to allow death row prisoners to choose a firing squad over electrocution and lethal injection.
Since the first method sometimes fails to kill the condemned and the second requires drugs that are no longer available in South Carolina, some of the state's 37 death row inmates may take this new option. This means someday soon, one of them may be strapped to a chair while marksmen open fire. Oklahoma, Mississippi and Utah already allow this form of execution.
One of the lonely Democratic dissenters in South Carolina decried the bill as “more medieval than modern," an aberration from distant times and places. But lethal ferocity in the name of the people is very much a part of American history — and, in a twisted sense, of American democracy too.
Martial law became slave law
It's well known that the United States is an outlier in its use of capital punishment, which most democracies outlawed by the early 1980s. Less visible are the regional divides on the issue. As McGill law professor Mugambi Jouet explains, the “Blue States" of the Northeast eschew the death penalty, while voters in the former Confederacy often support killing at least some criminals.
The cultural and moral differences here reach back to the 17th century.
While Puritans immediately set up jury trials and town meetings in New England, the leaders of the Jamestown (Virginia) colony, founded in 1607, imposed martial law to keep their indentured servants at work. They turned the colony into an army camp.
True, leading men established a kind of assembly in 1619, but that same year also witnessed the arrival of African slaves. By the end of the century, Virginia depended on enslaved workers. Martial law for whites became slave law for Blacks.
Founded in the 1670s by white settlers and slaveholders from Barbados and Jamaica, South Carolina grew into an especially fearsome racial police state. Until 1807, captive Akans, Oyos and Fantes arrived in wretched ships off Charleston, then laboured in the rice and cotton fields under the watchful eyes of armed and mounted white men.
South Carolina's citizens were always on a war footing. In slave patrols and local militias, they frantically scoured the roads and slave cabins, terrified that the Black people they brutalized would take revenge upon them. Blacks made up an “intestine" enemy, a mortal foe within the very “bowels" of the ruling race.
These patterns of coercive rule and racial fear shifted but endured after the Civil War ended 1865. Wherever slavery had long prevailed, armed white men — police, Klansmen, posses — wielded the power or threat of deadly force against everyone else. And since 1912, nearly three-quarters of prisoners executed in South Carolina have been Black.
Divided by faith
Opinion on the death penalty is also divided in America along lines of faith.
Liberal Protestants, lapsed Catholics and the growing ranks of the unaffiliated and agnostic mostly reject capital punishment. In the Congregationalist church of my youth, for example, the female pastor described God as gentle and loving, not all the type to smite His foes.
But that's not the Christianity that prevails in the U.S. Deep South and Sun Belt. Southern Baptists in particular trace back to the Great Awakenings of the mid-1700s, which rejected the Enlightenment drift towards humanism in favour of a more dramatic encounter with the Divine.
In this bracing form of evangelicalism, the pious did not reconcile with God through moral behaviour and social progress. Rather, they were saved as a sudden gift from the heavens — or cast into the fiery pit of Hell. They waited for Jesus to return with a host of avenging angels.
During the 19th century, these themes from the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation blended with a powerful strain of American nationalism. Praising Andrew Jackson's 1818 attack on Black and Indigenous fighters in Spanish Florida, one congressman called Jackson the man “appointed by Heaven to tread the wine press of Almighty wrath." Americans like Jackson were called to destroy evils abroad as well as enemies within, to act like the fearsome God to whom they prayed.
These epic couplings of national power and divine justice remain a vivid part of America's religious landscape. They also inform U.S. foreign policy. “When it comes to how we should deal with evil-doers, the Bible … is very clear," declared the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a death penalty enthusiast and one of former president Donald Trump's spiritual advisers, during a 2017 standoff with North Korea. “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un," he said.
The promise of The American Revolution
Liberal commentators, wedded to a PG-version of American history, assume that such beliefs will fade away. They tell themselves that constitutional government and Enlightenment humanism will continue to move society forward.
The real story is messier. It includes equally deep traditions of martial law and racial caste, of avenging Gods and apocalyptic longing. Indeed, the deep roots of lethal justice reach into the very make-up of American democracy.
For all the caterwauling in U.S. politics about freedom from government, the original promise of the American Revolution was that the people would take part in government. The people, not the Crown, would be sovereign, and the ultimate role of the sovereign was to punish.
In this sense, South Carolina's firing squads are not only about “justice and closure" for the victims of violent crime, as Gov. Henry McMaster would have it, but also about fulfilling some of the deepest and darkest impulses of American democracy.
The best way to confront those impulses is not to disdain them as relics or exceptions, but rather to understand them as contingent historical outcomes — and then to mobilize the sovereign people as a more diverse and inclusive whole, joined together by the better angels of their nature for something other than punishment.