American Know-How Fails

Yesterday, the state of Missouri executed Herbert Smulls, who had been convicted of a 1991 murder, despite a number of appeals and temporary stays. Smulls's lawyers had noted that the state refused to disclose where they got the pentobarbital they were going to use for the lethal injection, and apparently if the drug is not mixed properly it can create extreme pain. As you may know, in the last couple of years, pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs used to perform lethal injections have decided to suspend their manufacture, leading some states scrambling for ingredients they need to send condemned prisoners to the great beyond. Some have even considered antiquated execution techniques; there are bills in Missouri and Wyoming to bring back firing squads, and one Virginia lawmaker wants to make the electric chair an option again.

Which leads me to ask this. It's the 21st century. We can build skyscrapers a kilometer high. We can send ships to Mars. We can put a powerful computer in the pockets of billions of people. Are you telling me that with all our technology, all our engineering knowledge, and all our good old-fashioned American ingenuity, we can't come up with a quick, effective, and painless way to kill a man?

Before we go any farther, let me make clear that I'm an opponent of death penalty, for all the reasons you might expect. Not only is there no convincing evidence that it deters crime, mistakes in death penalty cases (of which there are plenty) are impossible to reverse. There are two purposes of criminal punishments: to deter crime, and to remove criminals from society so they can't victimize more people. The death penalty does neither over and above life in prison.

Beyond these practical considerations is a moral one: the death penalty is a vestige of a more barbarous time, which is why most countries have done away with it, and why we should too. But if we're going to do it, surely we can devise a method that doesn't have all the uncertainty that lethal injection has brought.

Frankly, I've always thought that the guillotine is the most humane of execution methods, since it's so quick. But it's not exactly clean, what with all the blood and the matter of the severed head to deal with. So we're messing around with drug cocktails we don't really understand? Come on. This can't be that hard a problem to solve.

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