It's been fascinating to watch the howls of betrayal following Ken Lay's death.
What it lays bare is the weirdness of our judicial system. The subtext of the post-death commentary has been that oblivion is a mercy, jail the true punishment. Yet our most devious crimes are sent to the chair, not to solitary confinement. And, meanwhile, corporal punishment is considered barbaric, with Singapore's occasional canings generating many outraged gasps from domestic blowhards. But it's not clear why five years in prison -- with all the rape and violence that occurs behind bars -- is more civilized than a public, or private, beating. I know which I'd choose. And from a social perspective, while prison has the advantage of actually locking folks up, for nonviolent offenders, society isn't endangered by their freedom.
As for capital punishment, it's telling that we think it the ultimate in retribution when we carry it out, but an escape hatch when Lay's faulty arteries do the job for us. Never mind that his heart attack was probably more painful than the anesthetized injections that generally complete the sentence. His body's failure denied us the pleasures of revenge, and revenge appears to be what we really wanted. We're not angry that he died, but that we didn't kill him.