Justin E.H. Smith is university professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris Diderot. He is the author of Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy, out next month from Princeton University Press.

To my undying astonishment, there are journalists who, as part of their job, accept invitations to attend executions. They are witnessing and testifying, of course, and this is important. And yet, it has often seemed to me, they are also abetting. Like the attending spiritual advisers, they are playing their role in a ritual, and like any ritual, the fact that there are people who show up, to fill even the secondary roles, helps create an ambiance of legitimacy.

Jeffrey E. Stern's coverage of "The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett," in the June issue of The Atlantic, reminds us why, whatever the moral compromise, whatever the taint, we need people to witness and to testify. This is all the more true at the present moment, when the long and dirty legacy of capital punishment in America appears to be in its death throes. There can be no sudden abolition, not in the United States, with its loose federalism and with the pressure on political candidates at the state level to appear tough on crime. Instead the legitimacy of the practice is being chipped away at, bit by bit, and the contradictions are being heightened to the point of absurdity.

For some years now, the principal challenge to the practice has been the argument that this or that particular method of execution is cruel and unusual. So states are kept in perpetual quest of the impossible, as death-penalty opponents and skeptics push to restrict ever more tightly the range of methods that can be plausibly passed off as humane. This pressure has in turn compelled representatives of American prisons to virtually reproduce the very behavior of the criminalized drug users they are in the habit of imprisoning: lurking around with bags of untraceable cash, looking to buy lethal compounds from shady operators in Britain, India, and elsewhere. And now we see what seems, in a plot sense, much like a showdown: the Drug Enforcement Administration has begun raiding prisons to crack down on their importation of illegal drugs, intended for the execution of death-row inmates.

This final phase of the American death penalty looks, in fact, a good deal like a large-scale version of one of the many botched executions carried out in recent years: obscene, contradictory, impossible to sustain. The brave and diligent journalists who have let us know the extent of the obscenity ? like Katie Fretland, who is profiled in Stern's report, and who not only bears witness but has also followed the seedy trail of drug purchases by Oklahoma officials ? deserve our attention. Stern's article makes it much more difficult for us to avert our eyes.