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Execution by lethal injection is these days commonly described in the media as ‘putting to death’ (e.g., an AP article of June 28, 2006 announces: “‘Railroad Killer’ Put to Death in Texas” ). This phrase, along with the more overtly veterinary ‘putting down’, seems to suggest that the creature in question is only being relieved of its misery, that it is a being morally and biologically ready for death, and that the operation performed upon it is really just a facilitation of the inevitable. The moral acceptability, even the necessity, of the act is built into the term used to describe it. And the result of this semantic legerdemain is a passive assumption on the part of the public that lethal injection agrees with our sense of the sanctity of life and of the importance of compassionate death for all, while hangings, firing-squads, electric chairs, guillotines, and gas chambers are, in contrast, distant memories from our barbaric past.
How did this shift in public perception of lethal injection come about? And how much empirical evidence as to the suffering it involves will have to be accumulated before we move on to another method (flesh-eating ants? hemlock?) and in turn denounce today’s preferred technique? Numerous legal cases have recently challenged the use of lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment, in view of the mounting evidence that, when the first drug in the cocktail, the anesthetic, is administered incorrectly, the following two drugs cause excruciating pain as they move through the veins to the heart. This evidence means that, in all likelihood, lethal injection will soon go the way of hanging and decapitation, and it is crucial at this pivotal moment that abolitionists not permit some other temporarily satisfactory, but ultimately no less cruel method to take its place.
Lethal injection was first proposed in the 1880s by Julius Mount Bleyer, a New York doctor who believed that this new technique, made possible by the same medical advances that were simultaneously facilitating massive advances in public health, would be more humane, and more ‘modern’, than hanging. At precisely the same time, however, electricity was finding ever more applications, as prominent figures (among them Thomas Edison), described its many uses with near-utopian optimism. It was in this cultural context that Bleyer’s needles were rejected at the end of the 19th century in favor of what was improbably described as a more humane alternative: the electric chair. Too many malfunctions to count soon made it clear that this was not the perfect solution either, and throughout the mid-20th century we see a number of methods tried out, none to anyone’s perfect satisfaction. The British Royal Commission on Capital Punishment reports in 1954 that “[n]either electrocution nor the gas chamber have a balance of advantages over hanging. The method of lethal injections has too many difficulties but should be re-examined in light of progress in anaesthetics.”
In the United States, electrocution and other various methods were employed until the mid-1970s, when Oklahoma’s state medical examiner, Jay Chapman, returned to the idea Bleyer had proposed nearly a century earlier, though with a somewhat more complicated recipe: “An intravenous saline drip,” Chapman proposed, “shall be started in the prisoner’s arm, into which shall be introduced a lethal injection consisting of an ultra-short-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic.” The method was swiftly enacted into law in Oklahoma, but first employed in Texas in 1982. It is now the sole method of execution permitted in most states, and by far the most common one actually employed.
Of course, the most famous effort to humanize execution came a century before Bleyer and Edison, with the joint effort of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a doctor and member of the French Revolutionary National Assembly, and Antoine Louis, a member of the French Surgeons’ Academy. Unlike the methods used under the ancien régime –hanging for commoners and decapitation with a sword for aristocrats– the guillotine was promoted as both efficient and egalitarian. As would happen later with the electric chair and lethal injection, it was praised for its power to swiftly and painlessly dispatch lives” at least until it was discovered that a severed head can remain conscious, and even interact with doctors by means of coordinated blinks, for up to thirty seconds after its separation from the body.
Even before the Enlightenment, the ideal of compassionate execution often influenced the way observers and facilitators act at the scene of the killing.
The French historian Robert Muchembled has chronicled the changing attitudes towards execution in Europe from the 15th to the 18th centuries. In certain times and places, we may discern a desire for exacting vengeance on the condemned in the cruelest and most painful way possible. At other moments, the criminal is accompanied to his death by throngs of weeping nuns, who sprinkle him with holy water, and whisper to him reassuringly of God’s love and of the promise of redemption, and who ensure that death arrives both swiftly and gently. Yet the more compassion is showered on the condemned, the more his death takes on the character of a human sacrifice: the pagan Greeks wept too as they led bulls to the altar, though they refrained from offering fellow humans for the appeasement of their gods. One may be touched by the nuns’ compassion, yet wouldn’t true compassion require simply canceling the whole affair? You can sprinkle a man’s path to the injection table with rose petals, but he will hate it just as much as a gauntlet of jeers. The problem with execution is the death that results from it, not the etiquette of those who carry it out.
It can only be concluded that the logic governing the periodic changes since the 18th century, from one method of execution to another, is rooted not in science, nor in moral progress, but in fashion. What dictates hanging this season, and lethal injection the next, is the same illusion of real change that makes the style-conscious now disdainful of bellbottoms, now covetous of them. We do not like to think of our moral standards as comparable to sartorial whims. Morality is supposed to be improving, while anyone with any reflective ability can see that one season’s fashion musts are objectively no better nor worse than another’s. Yet it is a useful exercise to take stock of what exactly the last few centuries of purportedly humanitarian efforts to improve execution methods have brought us. Capital punishment still hurts, and it still results in death. The periodic shift from one method to another, and the simultaneous denunciation of the old method, only confirms the validity in this domain of that basic law of fashion: the more things change, the more they remain the same.
There are of course many who believe execution should involve suffering. Their position at least has the virtue of consistency and clarity, unlike the pseudo- humanitarian philosophy that dictates current policy. Those who long for vengeance have a true commitment, and are no vapid trend-followers. Their position is the only one to acknowledge the gravity of the act in question. It is the only one that is not motivated by bad faith. As long as we continue debating the relative politeness of lethal injection versus hanging, decapitation, etc., it is their position that triumphs by default.
Justin Smith teaches philosophy in Canada. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org