So, the blogosphere has been roiled over the last week by a single controversial tweet -- the announcement of the execution of convicted murderer Ronnie Gardner by the attorney general of Utah, Mark Shurtleff, who tweeted to his 7,000 followers on June 18: "I just gave the go ahead to the Corrections Department to proceed with Gardner's execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims." Gardner was then executed by a five-man firing squad. Around that time "firing squad" was a top-trending topic on Twitter.
The reactions to this unusual tweet -- apparently the first of its kind -- have been predictable: If I had to give my sense of the overall breakdown of sentiment, there is a liberal cohort that finds Shurtleff's decision to tweet a prisoner's execution utterly repellant and immoral, a conservative cohort that staunchly defends the attorney general, and a large group in between which is made uncomfortable by the idea, but can't quite say why.
Of course, these differences in opinion are shaped to a large degree by ideological beliefs regarding capital punishment. But beyond that, there is a more focused controversy about the propriety of the tweet itself -- that is, some commentators who support capital punishment, or at least concede that states have the right to practice capital punishment, also seem to take issue with the choice of medium for the attorney general's announcement, which they criticize as being in poor taste. For example John Mark Reynolds of Biola University, who blogs on faith and ethics for the Washington Post, wrote: "Dostoevsky wrote a novel on crime and punishment, but evidently Utah could not muster three hundred words." He elaborated: "Twitter can convey information and the writer's immediate feelings, but any death, especially one sanctioned by the state, demands more seriousness."
I personally oppose capital punishment, but I am going to play devil's advocate in this case. Above all, the criticism is misguided because of the misconceptions about what it means to tweet something. Reynolds (who wrote what I consider the most eloquent denunciation of the attorney general's tweet) described Twitter as "rawer and more thoughtless," adding, "The executed man had relatives and a right to dignity, even at the end. This was stripped from him as a state official gave us not his best, considered thought, but raw information and emotion stripped of reflection." This critique is in keeping with the general perception of tweets as short, often flippant, off-the-cuff remarks.
But I disagree with this view. Sure, tweets can be all those things. But if a serious sentiment can be summed up in 140 characters or less, why should it not be expressed on Twitter? Reynolds would like a more weighty statement, but think about it: supposing the attorney general of Utah gave a press conference to announce the execution (which, in fact, he did www.attorneygeneral.Utah.gov/live.html )... what else would he really say? The execution is itself the final, decisive statement -- and everything else is window dressing and in some sense detracts from the somberness of the event.
Shurtleff's video press conference is the perfect example: the attorney general was sidetracked by his need to acknowledge that capital punishment is controversial while affirming that it is still the law, making the video announcement of Gardner's death something a political speech, focusing on topics other than Gardner's actual death. Shurtleff's remarks about Gardner's execution came at the end, and -- tellingly -- simply reiterated his comment in the tweet: "Right now Ronnie P. Gardner is being held accountable by a higher power. I hope and I pray he will be shown the mercy he denied his vicrtims." Clearly, Shurtleff put a great deal of thought into his 140-character announcement, and it may even have helped him refine his thoughts about what was truly important to say in this event. In fact, I would even argue the tweet was more dignified and respectful to Gardner than the press conference.