Guest Post by Lisa Guenther, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University
Yesterday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill to bring back the electric chair as the default method of execution, should lethal injection drugs become unavailable or unconstitutional. While the first version of the bill restricted its application to death sentences issued after July 2014, a last-minute amendment lifted this restriction, making it applicable to those who are currently on death row. Theoretically, this means that we could be facing an execution by electrocution in Tennessee as early as Oct. 7, when Billy Irick is scheduled to be killed.
It is tempting to decry this return to the electric chair as a “barbaric” lapse into brutal forms of violence that do not befit a democratic nation such as the United States. It is also tempting to affirm this legislation as a more “truthful” display of what is really going on when the state kills, and to hope that the unconcealment of state violence will lead to more vigorous opposition. But it’s not at all clear that more truth leads to more activism, nor that brute violence is incompatible with US democracy.
In order to understand what’s happening in Tennessee – and in other states that are currently going out of their way to kill people, such as Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Utah – we must move beyond moral discourses on the death penalty and trace the material, political connections between state violence, economic inequality, and white supremacy in the United States.