How to Kill a Man

The government of Oklahoma did not botch an execution on Tuesday. When the administration of an untested combination of drugs fails, we do not describe the treatment as “botched,” but simply as a failed experiment. Last night, the government of Oklahoma conducted an unsuccessful experiment on a human being without his consent.

This man, a convicted rapist and murderer, is not someone I plan to mourn. His crimes, which included the rape and murder of a teenage girl, were as heinous as they were repulsive. His death was equally repulsive. Strapped to a gurney, he was injected with an untried cocktail of drugs intended to sedate him, stop his breathing and then stop his heart. The first drug, midazolam, commonly known as Versed, is a short-acting benzodiazepine (similar to Valium) typically used to sedate patients before uncomfortable procedures such as being executed while strapped to a gurney. The second drug, vecuronium bromide, is a particularly nightmarish substance. A paralytic, it blocks the transmissions of motor neurons. Patients who report being awake but unable to move or cry out during surgery are reporting the joys of vecuronium bromide when administered with insufficient sedation. The last drug, potassium chloride, is simply poison that stops the heart. KCl, as it is known, is common fodder for gallows humor in the medical community, with doctors and nurses “prescribing” a fatal injection of KCl to particularly obnoxious patients. Or, as here, fatal doses actually being prescribed.

The administration of these drugs failed to achieve the intended purpose — a clean, antiseptic death. Instead, the condemned man writhed on the gurney, called out and died in apparent agony of a massive heart attack. Clearly, this outcome was unacceptable — the state must kill in a controlled, clean and calm fashion, without embarrassing or distressing drama. Indeed today NPR told me I might find its reporting on the man’s death “disturbing,” presumably because of the writhing, not the death.

What is most curious about this experiment is how unnecessary it is. Millions of data points from killing fields and death camps, from the Einsatzgruppen and the NKVD, point the way clearly to the easiest, swiftest, most painless and cost effective way to kill. Have the condemned kneel. Place the muzzle of a small caliber pistol against the base of the victim’s skull. Pull the trigger once. The bullet destroys the brain stem, killing the condemned instantly. The total price of the execution amounts to a few minutes of the executioner’s wages and the price of a bullet. In the 20th Century, millions died this way. This is the most reliable method of execution known, and why in our data-driven age any other technique is used is a mystery. Or perhaps, it is no mystery at all.

A man on his knees, hands bound, blindfolded, is defenseless, helpless, a pitiful object. We cannot stomach killing this way. We cannot, truthfully, stomach the act of killing at all. Just as we long for remote-control wars and fill the skies with drones, we long for a robotic executioner killing without any of the horror of killing. We do not use lethal injection out of concern for the condemned, but out of concern for ourselves. We long to imagine that “the state” is killing these men and women, and that they aren’t really being killed at all, just antiseptically removed — “destroyed.” So we distance the lethal act from the proof of the deed; first the hangman, who simply pulls a lever, then the electric chair, with its switch, and now lethal injection, done at the press of a button, the same way the Air Force kills Yemeni children.

But if we can’t face the man on his knees, and if we don’t want to see ourselves as the man holding the pistol, should we be killing at all? Clayton Lockett was tortured to death last night so we could pretend we are somehow better than the man holding a pistol to the base of another man’s skull. If we are fine with killing, then why do we not kill the right way? If killing the right way troubles you, are you really fine with killing?

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