The Keystone ExeKutioners

It’s easy to kill someone cleanly painlessly: put him in a room and replace the air in that room with an inert gas, such as nitrogen. So why do we insist on messy, painful means of execution?

My apologies for raising a disgusting issue, but …

As far as I can tell all the fuss about how to carry out capital punishment is completely unnecessary. It isn’t hard to kill someone painlessly. Put him in an airtight room, evacuate the air, and introduce an inert gas (say, nitrogen) instead. (Update Simulataneously, of course.) In less than a minute, he will start to feel dizzy from lack of oxygen.

In less than two minutes, he’ll be unconscious. Shortly thereafter, his heart will stop beating. Ten minutes later brain activity will cease. Then you let the air back into the room and take out the corpse.

At no time will the victim feel “air hunger” (i.e., won’t have the sensation of not being able to breathe) because carbon dioxide won’t be building up in his bloodstream, which is what our bodies are programmed to notice. Since nitrogen isn’t at all poisonous, there’s no need for any special precautions to protect staff and observers. Nor is there need for any medical attendant, other than the medical examiner to sign the death certificate.

I’m not clear on why no one anywhere in the world does it this way. Because the legislatures and prison wardens don’t really want the process to be painless and unspectacular? Because no sane, decent, and competent person wants to give the requisite advice? Because, although such people are available, the state chooses to hire incompetent buffoons instead?

This really isn’t snark. I’m genuinely puzzled. Why has such an easy problem been made so hard?

As it happens, I really don’t have a dog in the capital-punishment fight. I would prefer, if executions are to be carried out, that they be as painless as possible. Death seems a sufficient penalty, without adding torment. I’m sorta-kinda in favor of execution if the alternative is really life in prison without parole. I’m agnostic about the net effect of executions, compared to long imprisonment, in deterring crime; whatever the sign of the result, at any practicable frequency of execution the total effect must be negligible compared to the homicide rate, so it seems to me the decision should be made on other grounds, and that debating it is mostly a distraction from the debate we ought to be having about how to control crime.

(That the deterrent effect of capital punishment is now an article of faith among “conservative” voters and a shibboleth for “conservative” politicians would be amusing if it weren’t such a sad testimony to self-deception and intellectual dishonesty; there’s no reasonable link between conservative principles and that empirical claim, but apparently the straightforward retributionist claim &#8212 with which I mostly agree &#8212 is just too mean-sounding to be offered publicly.)

Much as I hate to agree with Jane Galt’s libertarian prejudices, in the case of execution “government failure” is demonstrable fact.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: