When it comes to the death penalty, it is clear that the proscription against cruel and unusual punishment applies not to the person subject to the penalty, but to those who have to administer it and oversee it. If you are not a psychopath or someone homicidally deranged by greed, lust, religion or politics – that is, if you’re just an ordinary guy or gal whose day job occasionally requires your participation in doing away with a bound and defenseless individual – you certainly are justified in seeing that day job as having its cruel and unusual side and in wanting to mitigate the pain it causes you.
In the United States, with its native “can do” attitude, officials involved in the practicalities of capital punishment, naturally turn to technology in their efforts to reduce the stress caused by that aspect of their work.
The first such advancement was brought to the attention of the corrections bureaucracy by Thomas Alva Edison who, in his dispute with George Westinghouse over whether the nation should be powered by direct or alternating current, demonstrated – by experimenting with both methods to finish off a number of animals of varying avoirdupois – that Westinghouse’s alternating current was more lethal than his own direct current and thus was less safe for use by the law-abiding majority. It was a clever move on Edison’s part. By conceding to Westinghouse the tiny market share that was involved in operating electric chairs, Edison won for direct current the rest of the nation’s electrical grid.
As it turned out, death by electricity was just as distressing for onlookers, perhaps even more so, than death by hanging or firing squad. Fortunately, the unpleasantness was somewhat meliorated by the knowledge that the retributive annihilation they were compelled to witness was, at least, up-to-date. Still, when electrical power generation, having reached its apex with the splitting of the atom, gave way to pharmacology as the cutting edge of technology, these unfortunates eagerly sought relief from their distress in that field’s newest advances.
One can understand why capital executioners opting for a pharmacological methodology chose not to use what would have been the least distressful and most humane means of ending the life of their charges – opiate overdose. Not only would such a practice carry with it a rather disreputable cachet unsuitable to the staid corridors of governmental administration, it also might be open to the criticism that it afforded to the very worst specimens of humanity a demise which the rest of us, under our own inevitable death sentences, might envy.
What is not so understandable is why those entrusted with the meting out of capital punishment have chosen to use what is (fatuously, it seems to me) called “a cocktail” of two or more various drugs of fairly recent invention, whose suitability for the task at hand necessarily has been seldom, if ever, tested, instead of a simple injection of strychnine or cyanide. One can only surmise that executioners must be subject to the same persistent market forces that doctors are, and that attractive young pharmaceutical representatives, in neat, decorous attire, patiently wait in prison wardens’ anterooms, with their sample cases on their knees, eager to plead the superiority of their patented concoctions over those which had been prescribed the year before and which are now descending into the profitless purgatory of the generic.