Death Without Harm

The three drug protocol used for death by lethal injection (Image source:

The three drug protocol used for death by lethal injection (Image source:

Last night I watched the great Patrick McGoohan in the screen adaptation of Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow,  quare meaning queer, not as in the modern connotation of gay, but as in oddball, or strange.

The play is about a man who is sentenced to death by hanging. We never see him, but we hear him singing a song, The Auld Triangle, a device used to signal transitions within the prison.

I watched in disgust as the hangman gets drunk and dances the night before he hangs The Quare Fellow. The hangman’s soul is without blemish, or so it would seem, but The Quare Fellow killed his own brother, so he must be killed as punishment for his crime.

I was reminded of a fantastic comment in The New Yorker, which highlighted the culpability of all with regards to capital punishment, or the death penalty. Currently in the State of Connecticut the death penalty takes place by lethal injection.

Lethal Injection, sounds humane, if you want to call killing another human being humane, but it wasn’t until I read Cruel and Unusual, by Jeff Toobin in The New Yorker’s comments section, that I realized how many people play a part in death by lethal injection: its not just the person injecting the poison into the condemned person’s veins.

England's last hangman, Albert Pierrepoint.
England’s last hangman, Albert Pierrepoint. (Image source:

Toobin points out that other methods of execution, hanging, firing squad, gas chamber, and electric current were abandoned in the United States because, “death is required, but harm is forbidden.” This is the same reason that England’s last hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, was precise about the weight, height, neck size, depth of drop, plus the placement of the rope on the condemned neck. What all this meant was a fast, almost painless death by hanging. This, like Toobin says, is death without harm.

The death penalty by lethal injection, requires team effort, sometimes crossing continents, in order to bring death without harm. It requires the manufacture of the poison, the “three drug protocol” as Oklahoma state medical examiner Jay Chapman called the lethal injection method in 1977. The first injection is a sedative, the second relaxes the muscles, and the third and final injection causes cardiac arrest. This is humane? The manufacturers of the drug which induces a sedative state refused to allow its use in executions. This caused a global search for a replacement.

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison, completed in 2010. (Image source:
The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison, completed in 2010. (Image source:

But let’s face facts, everything from the bed, bed lining, straps, syringe, everything in the  room used for the killing is made by someone. This is the team used for executions. It isn’t a pretty picture. But this is how civilized society deals with deadly criminals.

This is the deterrent to commit heinous crimes within our society. We kill without causing harm.

When Thomas Edison feared use of his new electric current for killing he suggested the use of George Westinghouse’s alternating current for the electric chair. When the US makers of propofol learned that their drug may be used in place of sodium thiopental, the sedative which went into shortage, they feared a shortage of the drug from the Europeans.

The price of lethal injections (Image source:

The price of lethal injections (Image source:

Now, according to Toobin, seven states are using “compounding pharmacies” to re-create the drugs without FDA approval. “The risks of these substances being contaminated, or insufficiently effective, are considerable,” Toobin states. In other words, now we kill causing possible harm.

As of 2013, 60% of Americans supported the death penalty according to an October 29th Gallup Poll. It’s the lowest percentage in over 40 years, but it is enough to keep “death without harm” in business.


2 thoughts on “Death Without Harm

  1. Here’s a fairly recent controversy related in The New York Times to further the debates on Capital Punishment:

    “In January, executions in two states seemed to go awry. An Oklahoma inmate’s last words, 12 seconds after he was injected with lethal chemicals, were: “I feel my whole body burning.” A week later, an Ohio inmate “struggled, made guttural noises, gasped for air and choked for about 10 minutes before succumbing to a new, two-drug execution method,” according to The Columbus Dispatch.”

    Even more cruel and unusual, this is like Breaking Bad, except instead of a high school chemistry teacher making blue crystal meth, he’s making alternative lethal injection concoctions. Anyway, read the NY Times article, there’s more to this, way more.

  2. Reblogged this on Breise! Breise! Extra! Extra! and commented:

    In light of today’s news of another botched lethal injection execution in Oklahoma, here is another great article about the history of the death penalty in America; ” the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” applies to the death penalty as well, and has been variously interpreted as protecting the dignity of even those subject to capital punishment, or requiring that methods of execution be made compatible with society’s evolving standards of decency.” From the Boston Globe by Austiin Sarat.

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