Killing ‘Em Softly

We read here that the Supreme Court is considering the legality of the most widely used method of lethal injection, on the grounds that it may cause undue suffering to the party being executed, thereby running afoul of the Constitutional proscription regarding “cruel and unusual” punishment.

The matter of how best to dispatch the condemned has been with us for centuries, with various techniques passing in and out of fashion. Hanging and strangulation have enjoyed an enduring popularity, while fads like the axe, guillotine, gas chamber, and electric chair have come and gone. The firing squad has been a favorite of courts martial since the 1600’s. In feudal Japan, we are told, doomed prisoners were used to test the edge of newly forged swords. Burning at the stake, which requires naught but the simplest technology, was a favorite during the Middle Ages, and slow roasting over a low fire was a particular favorite of those good Christians who gave us the splendid moral example of the Inquisition. Not to be outdone, the sultans and caliphs of a well-known “religion of peace” favored a leisurely boiling in oil, while another low-tech option, stoning — which has the added attraction of requiring a crowd of people, thereby providing wholesome fun for the whole family — was the method of choice in Biblical times, and is still a popular community activity in Muslim communities of exceptional fidelity. Those with abundant resources at their disposal, and the political freedom to experiment a bit, have come up with some particularly imaginative approaches: Saddam Hussein, for example, liked nothing better than watching a gadfly or two vanish, feet first, into an industrial plastic shredder. At various times and places people have been torn apart by dogs, thrown to the lions, or drawn and quartered in the public square. With so many options available, it strikes me as odd that the debate in this country is so narrowly focused.

Just to be clear, I’m opposed to the death penalty myself, though I have see-sawed on the question over the years. It just seems wrong, to me, to kill someone once you have him at your mercy, although I can offer no compelling rational argument for this position. For the sake of this discussion, however, let us assume that we have before us some black-hearted scoundrel that a due process of law has convinced us needs killing, and that we wish to do so in a swift and painless fashion. I see no technical difficulties here, and am happy to offer a couple of suggestions.

How about this: the condemned shall be fastened into a seat that features a headrest with an immobilizing strap. (To forfend any charges of excessive harshness, we suggest a nice comfy chair, perhaps even, in states with a sufficiently productive tax base, a suitably modified La-Z-Boy or Barcalounger.) Mounted on the headrest (and artfully concealed, if we like) are two 12-gauge shotguns, deployed in a suitably angled configuration. (We assume, of course, in this dramatization, a fair trial, the indisputable guilt of the seated party, the exhaustion of all legal appeals, and the absence of a last-minute call from the governor’s mansion.) At the appointed hour, the weapons are discharged, instantly atomizing the offending skull and its vexatious contents. It is hard to imagine that there would be any undue suffering here, other than the normal psychological discomfort that customarily attends the prospect of one’s imminent demise.

Likewise, the doomed party might be blindfolded and placed upon a steel slab. (For added comfort a thin foam mattress of some sort might be made available, but unfortunately, excessive luxury in this regard — such as a king-size Sealy Posturepedic with a memory-foam pillow top — will be impractical, as we shall see.) Magnetically suspended a few yards above we have a steel block weighing several tons. When the moment feels right (and again, we assume the same provisos and disclaimers as in the previous scenario), this stupendously massive object is released. It glides smoothly and silently downward, flattening our felon to a red organic paste in the space of few milliseconds.

Both of these methods could, I think, be relied upon to give uniformly satisfactory results, and the only person who would suffer anything “cruel and unusual” — over and above the brute and irreducible fact of being executed in the first place — would be the unfortunate menial whose job it is to squeegee up afterwards.


  1. Eric says

    I always liked the plastic explosive headband. Fast, effective, messy.

    Posted January 9, 2008 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Bill says

    I don’t know that cruel and unusual meant painless. It meant no prolonged death or torture. I am rather nasty and vindictive. Given some monster that tortured and then killed his/her victims, since he/she can’t be killed more than once, at least make it ignominious. Nothing is more ignoble than hanging. Firing squads have an aura of honor about them.

    At the time the constitution was written hanging and firing squads were the common ways of execution. They probably would have thought that beheading, a la the guillotine was cruel and unusual, or perhaps the execution in the “Count of Monte Cristo”.

    Oh yes, I do believe in the death penalty, for several reasons:
    1. deterrence, which studies show it does
    2. justice, no respect for human life then forfeit yours
    3. throwing out the garbage.

    Posted January 10, 2008 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Bill,

    Well, as I said, I have been back and forth myself on the capital-punishment question, and am against it at this point, but not by virtue of any knock-down argument. It just seems wrong spiritually to me; it feels as if we damage ourselves somehow by killing a helpless prisoner.

    The question of deterrence is an interesting and complex one. Two points: one, that I think most murders are committed in hot blood, and I wonder whether rational considerations of deterrence are a factor in such circumstances; two, that we must weigh any alleged deterrent effect (and I think that is a rather contentious empirical matter) against what we are willing to have the state do in our name. If, say, gruesome torture were an effective deterrent against embezzlement, would we want to employ it? For some, and I am one of them, killing a powerless captive is somewhat repellent.

    That said, I agree that there are acts for which one forfeits one’s right to live in society.

    Anyway, the point of this post was simply to point out that if we want to kill people without suffering, there are simple ways to do so, and all this fussing at the Supreme Court is just a waste of time and taxpayer’s money.

    Posted January 10, 2008 at 5:05 pm | Permalink
  4. the one eyed man says

    I have long been an opponent of capital punishment — I’m not convinced that it works as a deterrent, and I’m troubled by the possibility that innocent people could be executed — until I read an article in Esquire last year about a prison gang which targets prosecutors for murder and gets accomplices outside of jail to commit the crime.

    The people in the gang are serving life without parole, and the only leverage the state has with them is the possibility of capital punishment. In this limited circumstance, I think that capital punishment is morally justifiable.

    Posted January 10, 2008 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    Well, my primary objection to capital punishment is a sense that it is wrong to kill a powerless captive, though I also agree that the possibility of executing the innocent is equally problematic. I have no qualms whatsoever about killing someone to prevent him from killing others, and if the guys you refer to are still a mortal threat even while imprisoned, then my objection is knocked aside, and killing them is arguably justified (although I suppose they could be isolated, too).

    There are some people who are simply so vicious and unrepentant that it becomes difficult to see any clear moral objection to simply getting rid of them.

    What about psychopaths who are congenitally unable to make normal moral judgments? They are as dangerous as it is possible for a human being to be, but arguably through no fault of their own.

    These issues of responsibility and guilt are not simple.

    Posted January 10, 2008 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  6. Bill says

    The deterrence is not with the crimes of passion but with the hardened criminal. An anecdote is worth repeating here.

    I had a friend that used to do science demonstrations at the state prison which was about 12 miles away. One of the demonstrations was with a Van de Graaf generator, creating large sparks all over the place and generally creating a good show. Afterwards, one of the cons asked him if he could fix the chair, meaning cancel the electric chair.

    Seems to me that execution was definitely a deterrent in his case. The problem with deterrence estimates is they resemble latent demand in computers. You don’t really know unless you let it happen.

    Posted January 11, 2008 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

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