Charles Lane, author of an excellent book about the death penalty Stay of Execution: Saving the Death Penalty from Itself—profiled in an earlier post—has penned this interesting death penalty article in the Washington Post.
“According to political stereotypes, Europeans are worldly, realistic moral relativists while Americans, with our "exceptionalism" and periodic crusades to democratize the world, are comparatively idealistic. On one issue, though, the roles are reversed. America retains the death penalty, with all of its gloomy assumptions about human nature and grim moral trade-offs. Europe, by contrast, views it as immoral per se, a violation of human rights and basic human dignity. No country that practices capital punishment can be a member of the European Union.
“I don't happen to agree that the issue is quite so black and white, and even wrote a small book to explain why. Still, I try to accept Europe's moral absolutism on the death penalty in good faith -- the criminological equivalent of pacifism, not a cheap anti-American posture. Europe's hectoring may even benefit the United States, to the extent that it forces us to confront the very real imperfections in our system.
“But just when I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt, some Europeans go and do something irresponsible like restricting the export of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic, to the United States -- because some death penalty states use it in lethal injections. Not only is this gesture unlikely to prevent any executions -- it actually could put the lives and health of innocent Americans at risk.
“Here's why. Sodium thiopental has long been a mainstay of general anesthesia; the World Health Organization lists it as an "essential medicine" for any health-care system. In the United States, a newer drug, propofol, has mostly -- but not entirely -- replaced thiopental. According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists, sodium thiopental "is still considered a first-line anesthetic in many cases including those involving geriatric, neurologic, cardiovascular and obstetric patients, for whom the side effects of other medications could lead to serious complications."