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Seeking "Humane Execution" (Huh???)

We seem to be having some trouble figuring out how to kill the 2,755 prisoners currently on death row. Turns out all the usual tricks—electric chairs, gas chambers, lethal injections—are proving unreliable. Lately, some folks are promoting a wonderful new method: putting their heads in bags full of nitrogen gas in hopes of suffocating them to death. (

All this seems so overly complicated to me. Back in the good old days, we just chopped off their heads with a guillotine. Quick, quiet, efficient. Whop! A cabbage-sized severed head tumbled into a wicker basket. The two parts of the late prisoner were carted away. Done. Not sure why we gave up on that. Impossible to botch. Incontestibly effective. Probably even painless. Why didn’t we just keep doing that? Maybe, what, spectators got splattered with the blood or something.

So we advanced the art with the hangman’s scaffold, a bloodless and seemingly more sanitary method. Neater and cleaner, I guess, but then some tender-hearted types in the audience may have been upset by the herky-jerky flailing of the about-to-be corpse. It must be pretty hard to ignore somebody’s violent preference for living over dying.

So then we went to just standing ‘em up against a stone wall in front of a firing squad who blew them to smithereens with bullets. It was kind of noisy, and given that pesky splattering of blood again and the possibility of ricocheting bullets, these executions came to be confined to prison yards that lacked proper viewing accommodations for appreciative fans.

But because we can’t let well enough alone, creative connoisseurs of killing prisoners kept coming up with all those other innovative but inevitably flawed methods we’ve tried—the electric chairs, gas chambers, and lethal injections—that are now about to be replaced with nitrogen-gas-bag suffocation. As the article in the New York Times suggests (link above), there seems to be a widespread network of academics, medical types, prison officials, and others in perennial hot pursuit of a Holy Grail they define as a more “humane execution”.

Is it just me, or does the term “humane execution” strike anyone else as an oxymoronic contradiction in terms. Of course you don’t have to be a fussy linguist to flinch at it. I mean, if you’re a hard-nosed pragmatist, you could just wonder about pursuing something like an execution which costs millions and millions of dollars more than a lifetime incarceration.,comparable%20non%2Ddeath%20penalty%20cases.&text=The%20most%20rigorous%20cost%20study,comparable%20non%2Ddeath%20penalty%20case. Who benefits from that extravagance, anyhow?

And wouldn’t pragmatists wonder why states using the death penalty keep having more crime than states that don’t kill their prisoners?( Maybe it’s, like, you know, killing prisoners isn't really a pragmatic solution to anything at all.

Then, too, for us squeamish types, there’s the antique notion that words might actually mean what they say, including in the case of “humane” just what the dictionary suggests: “showing kindness, care, compassion, and sympathy toward others”. No wonder some of us think that being “humane” is pretty far removed from putting another person to death.

Well, the energetic folks that have graced us with nitrogen-gas bag suffocation will no doubt be at the ready with a new gimmick when that method, too, proves somehow too ghoulish and needs upgrading.

But in the end, I’m sticking with Polish poet Stanislaw Lec who famously asked,Is it really progress if a cannibal masters the knife and fork?”

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Hi Eliot,

Sorry I haven't commented on this. It got buried in my inbox with so many other things going on in the news. I've often thought about the merits of the death penalty vs. life in prison, but have never been able to reconcile the differences. I must say that I'm surprised that the cost of imposing the death penalty is much higher than a life sentence.

In considering the death penalty, I've always been troubled by the strong possibility that an innocent person could be put to death. The irreversibility of such a mistake should make it an unacceptable risk. In considering a life sentence, I'm troubled not only by the cost, but the inhumane conditions under which…

Sep 30, 2023
Replying to

Thanks as always for your as-always thoughtful response, Bob.

You may have noted that I didn't even get into the terrible executions of people who are innocent. This is a matter I have some familiarity with, as the first of the exoneration-of-the-innocents (Centurion) was founded here in Princeton, I know the founder well, our daughter and various friends have worked there for a while, etc. Their results are startling--revealing the badly flawed "justice" system that mistakenly puts innocent people on death row. So many hundreds have been exonerated by Centurion and many subsequent programs that it alone seems enough to abandon the procedure entirely. I'm glad that NJ and other states have simply taken it off the table...


I find it absolutely horrifying that the death penalty still exists in the "civilized" world, let alone within our country's borders. For me, the old adage "Two wrongs don't make a right" fits perfectly in this case.


We do not even reserve this fate for dogs or cats. Nitrogen gas asphyxiation was previously used to euthanize pets. However, the American Veterinary Medical Association no longer recommends nitrogen asphyxiation for nonavian animals, citing data that indicates those animals may experience panic, pain and severe physical distress before dying. The group states in its 2020 guidelines that nitrogen gas “is unacceptable” for animals other than chickens and turkeys.

From the NYTimes article I assume was the impetus for this excellent piece.

What more can I say?

Helen M


Sep 25, 2023

Some times we think - some time we wonder - some times we lose sleep - but we always wonder and think hard about what next Eliot will think and write about. 🤔 Keep it up - a book is around the corner - let's hope! Now go out and PLANT A TREE!

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