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The Act Of Killing Made Easy

May 3, 2014

If you have someone you want to kill, someone in your custody and under your control, and you want the killing to be as clean and elegantly inoffensive as possible, with a minimum of fuss and muss, then I will tell you how to do it. Get yourself a small death chamber. It should be reasonably air-tight but it need not have a perfect seal, because unlike the gas chambers of old their will be no poisons involved. Strap the undesired life into some kind of chair or throne. This is to prevent any banging on the door or window, theatrical flailing about, excessive displays of emotion, etc. Then, with a ventilation system of no great sophistication and a canister of nitrogen of no great expense, you can just pump out the air from the chamber, the air full of life-giving oxygen, and replace it with pure nitrogen, which will smother the life out of the subject more gently than a down pillow — which is actually a pretty rough way to go. A peculiarity of animal physiology is that although the body monitors carbon dioxide in the blood in such a way that when it rises a panicky, insistent “Suffocation!” warning is blasted through the organism, no such response follows from the mere lack of oxygen. Blindsided by the unnatural atmosphere, the body will simply weaken, fade, pass out, and die. People say there is no real physical suffering in this death. Of course, there will still be the suffering that comes from a person knowing he is being methodically put to his death, which we might think is the greater part of the disagreeableness of undergoing execution of any kind. But in our current legal system there is not much that can be done about that, short of just abandoning the death penalty altogether.

This is an obvious way of killing and one that has been discussed in the past. It is, in a sense, the most essential form of killing, because, short of vaporization or something like that, it is hypoxia, the lack of oxygen supply to living tissue, that gets us all in the end, whatever brings us there. It is cheap and easy and does not require much on the part of executioners. It scores as low on cruelty and grossness as you could hope for from any killing system. And yet this method has never been adopted as a means of execution. Why not? Maybe now, with all the unpleasantness surrounding lethal injection, someone will give it a chance. Or maybe not. Execution is never a matter of entirely practical concerns. The methods chosen always seem to reflect some underlying symbolism, whether discernible or not. Hanging or firing squad, electric chair or gas chamber. Choices that may be made more by dream logic than anything else. Now we have lethal injection, an impractical and overly complicated method but one that reflects a wider cultural tendency to try to medicalize every problem away. Maybe nitrogen asphyxiation fails the symbolic test. Maybe because it is lacking in a gothic touch that people want in their sanctioned killings. It might be just a little too practical. And what would it say about this country if  it was adopted? That when we choose to kill we –admirably– do it in the most sensible and efficient and tasteful way possible? Or, that when we choose to kill we –horrifyingly– do it in the most sensible and efficient and tasteful way possible?

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