“Image,” tennis player Andre Agassi said in a commercial in his younger, long-haired days, “is everything.”
That’s not true, of course, and Agassi grew to deeply regret uttering the words. But for any state trying to compete in a global economy, while image isn’t everything, it’s certainly a lot.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has crisscrossed the globe trying to sell Arkansas to potential investors, knows this. That’s why in this past legislative session he played defense against any potential bill that would impose state bathroom standards like North Carolina’s law, which cost the state 400 jobs from Paypal alone and was recently repealed. It also was a motivation for his spending a fistful of political capital moving the state’s commemoration of Gen. Robert E. Lee to a Saturday in October, far from its previous home on the same day as the Martin Luther King Holiday. Now only two former Confederate states, Mississippi and Alabama, celebrate the civil rights leader and the Civil War general on the same day.
Despite those efforts, Arkansas’ image has taken a bit of a hit the past couple of weeks in the eyes of some people. For a few days, the law allowed concealed carry permit holders to take their guns just about everywhere, including into Arkansas Razorbacks games. Fair or not, the idea of gun-toting fans made a lot of national headlines and was a step too far for the Southeastern Conference – not exactly a left-wing organization. After the SEC released a statement warning the law could affect the Hogs in a variety of ways, including, ominously, “scheduling,” the Legislature quickly passed another law restricting guns in those venues as well as other places.
That national story came and went. Another story will have a more lasting effect. As you probably know, Arkansas is set to execute eight convicted killers over 10 or 11 days, depending on how you do the math, from April 17-27.
Why so many so quickly? A U.S. Supreme Court decision in February set the stage for the eight to become the first in Arkansas to be executed since 2005 – the long delay caused by legal challenges and difficulties obtaining the three drugs used in the lethal injection. The makers of those drugs, which have other uses, do not like being associated with the death penalty for moral or public relations reasons. Many refuse to sell the drugs to Arkansas, while others will do so only anonymously, which Arkansas obliged with a state law now being challenged in court. The state’s supply of midazolam, used to render the condemned unconscious, expires April 30, so it’s a case of “use it or lose it” or try to find more.
Arkansas thus has become a center of attention in the international debate over the death penalty – illegal in all but one country in Europe, which Hutchinson has visited attempting to woo jobs to Arkansas. In a press conference Monday, he said other states have not suffered economically after carrying out the death penalty in the years since Arkansas last did, including Texas (187 since Arkansas’ last, according to the Death Penalty Information Center), Florida (33) and South Carolina (8). He said it would be unfair to punish Arkansas for taking longer than other states to carry out executions.
But those states did not perform eight executions in 10 or 11 days. In fact, no state has ever matched that pace in recent memory, which is why it’s being referred to in some quarters – and I’m just reporting this – as an “assembly line.” A state’s image is not based on fairness but on attention, and this is getting attention.
Image as Agassi knew, is not everything. The state’s policies on the death penalty should not be controlled by the fear of being called uncivilized by a European continent that plunged the world into war twice in the 20th century.
At the same time, how Arkansas is seen does matter – even more so the way it sees itself. The second half of this month could be a sobering, reflective time to live in Arkansas.
At least, it ought to be, regardless of where we stand on the death penalty. Right or wrong, let this month not simply be a source of headlines. After all, we’re talking about killings here – the eight the state is preparing to administer to those men on Death Row, and the 10 that put them there.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.