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Why Do People Want To Be Executioners? A Review of The Last Face You’ll Ever See by Ivan Solotaroff

By Elaine Cassel

Did you ever wonder what kind of person wants to be a public executioner—the prison employee who carries out the death sentence? Ivan Solotaroff wanted to know. He talked to several of them and wrote about their reasons in The Last Face You’ll Ever See (Harper Collins, 2001).

In the 1960s, Stanley Milgrim conducted a now-famous laboratory experiment in order to study obedience. After recruiting male volunteers, he set up a task in which someone called a "teacher" would administer electric shocks to a "learner" in order, ostensibly, to help them learn a list of words. When a "learner" missed a word, the "teacher" would administer an electric shock. An experimenter was in the booth with the "teacher," and would encourage the "teacher" to push the volt-delivering button when the "teacher" expressed reluctance. In fact, the experimenters would tell the "teachers" that they had no choice but to deliver the shocks.

In Milgrim’s experiment, no shocks were actually delivered. The "learners" were confederates of the experimenter. But the "teachers" thought that they were delivering shocks. And more than 65 % of the teachers were willing to administer the maximum voltage, in spite of the cries of pain and screams for mercy.

The death penalty, the ultimate form of punishment for crimes, is alive and well in the United States today. Even though it is under attack on several fronts for the unfairness in its administration and its effect (virtually all, with the noted exception of Timothy McVeigh, who receive the death penalty were poor and had poorly performing court-appointed attorneys who gave their clients an inadequate defense), 65 % of the country (like 65 % of Migram’s "teachers") believe in the death penalty.

Whether or not they would want to be the person who pushes the button (in states where electrocution is used) or inserting the lethal cocktail into the arm of the condemned person (in most states, lethal injection is the preferred form of execution), is another matter. But some people are willing—some gleeful—to be the executioner.

Author Ivan Solotaroff, who has studied many aspects of executions, decided to study the executioner. In The Last Face You’ll Ever See, he does not delve into the controversy of whether the death penalty is right or wrong. He simply wants to know why individual executioners want the job.

He found several different motives. Some say that they do it because they like the machinery of death, especially the electric chair. They take pride in their work and are disturbed when the machine malfunctions and they must make another effort to end a prisoner’s life. These people deny have any emotional attachment to the death process either way—to them, they are just operating a machine. Robert Elliott, an executioner at Sing Sing, has assisted in killing, or killed, more than 500 people. He admits to liking the power that is associated with the chair and he says he is doing no more than what society has asked him to do.

Thomas Berry Bruce, an executioner for the state of Mississippi, is a perfectionist. He does not like to see his victims burned; he wants them to "look good" when they are buried. But he is also distanced from the process. It may come as a surprise to many Americans that when the coroner fills out the death certificate of an executed person, the cause of death is listed as "homicide." Bruce, whose wife did not know for many years that he was an executioner (she thought he marketed fruit and vegetables to grocery stores), says that the term "homicide" has no more emotional significance to him than the words "pesticide" or "herbicide."

Readers will likely--and probably rightly—suggest that Elliot and Bruce are employing the defense mechanisms of denial and rationalization and engaging in emotional distancing. These men would deny any such psychological processes.

But another Mississippi executioner, Donald Hocutt, does not particularly enjoy his work. He wishes that society would execute people in public, as was long the custom. He says the secrecy of it makes him feel like it is "dirty." Hocutt’s comments suggest that he feels like society’s "shame" of the execution process (his explanation for why it is not carried out in public) is transferred to him.

Solotaroff also interviewed condemned men. Inmates at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison came up with a mythical-religious explanation of the execution process, in which the executioner is merely doing what society wishes it could do—kill the condemned man himself. They said that American society wants the death penalty because it wants to kill undesirable people. The executioner kills in their names. The inmates said that treating the prisoner kindly on his last day and preparing whatever foods he wants for a last meal is like, in Biblical terms, fattening the sacrificial animal for slaughter.

It appears that these condemned men have engaged in psychological distancing from and rationalization about the process in which they will be victims. By also seeing themselves as players in a larger drama, they also enhance their role in the process, much as Robert Elliott does, who see himself as carrying out the will of the state. The prisoners see themselves as being sacrificed in the name of the state.

Solotaroff interviewed only one executioner who gave up the job. Don Cabana, also from Mississippi, quit after it took 15 minutes for one man to die from death by lethal injection. Now he travels around the country speaking out against the death penalty.

Examination of the personality characteristics of participants in Milgram’s experiments did not indicate that they were maladjusted antisocial individuals. They were otherwise decent people who were willing to engage in hurtful behavior in order to obey authority. People who like to identify with authority are often said to have the personality trait of authoritarianism. People in law enforcement and corrections typically score high on personality scales that assess authoritarianism. The executioners may also be internalizing authoritarianism. Except for Cabana, they were happy to be identified with the execution process, in which society carries out the ultimate power against one of its citizens.

Psychology studies human behavior and thinking within social and political contexts. And even though the subject matter is grim, psychology students reading The Last Face You’ll Ever See can learn not just about the men who carry out executions, but something about themselves as well. Individual responses to the men’s stories allows us into our own feelings about the death penalty, one of the most controversial social and political issues of our time.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College

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