Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Healthy Death By Natural Gas Causes

Filed under "Strange But True." (Optional soundtrack here.)

The New York Times has made a story about the use of nitrogen gas for executing convicts the lead article in this week's "Health" section. You might find such product placement tasteless, were it not for the fact that the extrajudicial drone assassinations practiced by the last three US presidents have also been euphemized in therapeutic terms, as "surgical strikes" which are preferable to torture and indefinite imprisonment.

It's the same deal for state-sanctioned murder here in the Homeland. Why expose yourself to gruesome symptoms like seizures and screams when you can witness a convict serenely dying from the inhalation of nitrogen gas? For the patient, it's almost as good as going to the dentist and whiffing laughing gas or ether.  
Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi have authorized nitrogen for executions and are developing protocols to use it, which represents a leap into the unknown. There is no scientific data on executing people with nitrogen, leading some experts to question whether states, in trying to solve old problems, may create new ones.
“If and when states begin carrying out executions with nitrogen, it will amount to the same type of experimentation we see in the different variations of lethal injection,” said Jen Moreno, a lawyer who is an expert on lethal injection at the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic.
The experts' moral battle is already half-won if they're actually calling their place of deadly legal business a clinic - even though their expertise is more that of a medical malpractice lawyer than that of a medical clinician.

"Okay, Inmate," says the beneficent Nurse Guard of the Near Future. "Time to go to the clinic for some anesthesia. It'll be just like going to sleep! You won't even feel a thing, unlike in the olden barbaric days when we used to give out those terrible drug cocktails, or heaven forbid, electroshock therapy in a chair."

The Times's health article continues:
With some 2,750 inmates on death row in 31 states and in federal and military prisons, any jurisdiction that tries something new will be scrutinized as a test lab.

The push for change comes because lethal injection, introduced 40 years ago as more efficient and humane than the electric chair or gas chamber, has not met that promise. Indeed, it has sometimes resulted in spectacles that rival the ones it was meant to avert.
This is starting to get a bit scary. Republicans might come out against this miracle cure because it will be tested in a lab, and Republicans hate everything even remotely scientific, even when it's inspired by The Island of Dr. Moreau.

And what a shame that all the humane methods dreamed up by the Dr. Moreaus of the modern medical execution biz have not yet met the early promise of humaneness. This is especially galling in an oligarchic society where "spectacle" is largely reserved for political horse-races, demagogic campaign rallies and sporting events carrying an acceptably high risk of permanent brain damage to participants and sometimes to spectators themselves. There is nothing worse than an unforeseen spectacle offending the delicate sensibilities of the target audience.
One pitfall is that execution teams must find a vein to infuse, a process that can be excruciating. In February, an Alabama execution team gave up after trying for more than two hours on an inmate whose blood vessels had been damaged by chemotherapy and drug abuse. His lawyer accused the team of opening an artery and puncturing the prisoner’s bladder. The state later said it would not try again to execute him.
If they're patient enough, the Alabama inmate mentioned above will probably die of his cancer anyway, and there won't be a need for the "team' to exert themselves on such an unfairly uneven playing field.

Incidentally, have you ever noticed how the humane human executioners rarely have names in these death penalty stories? "The state" suddenly develops this strange ability to verbalize without the benefit of a human larynx whenever people want to avoid accountability. It's every bit as miraculous as a therapeutic lethal injection.

But wait....
Lethal injection also involves drugs that, if given incorrectly, can result in suffering. One is a paralyzing agent, and the other stops the heart. The paralyzing drug was included in the original plan for lethal injection partly to make the process look peaceful and less disturbing to witnesses, by preventing the prisoner from thrashing around. Both it and the heart-stopping drug are supposed to be given after a powerful sedative has rendered the person unconscious, but if the sedative does not work properly, the other two drugs can cause significant pain.
Again, the ghouls must never be subjected to witnessing the pain of the executed. Otherwise, the spectators might emerge from their cocoons of placid spectatorship and join the rest of the world in opposing the whole barbaric concept of capital punishment.
 Barbiturates were originally used for sedation, but manufacturers began refusing to sell them for executions. So states tried substituting other drugs. Some were ineffective and left prisoners moaning in what appeared to be prolonged agony.
The drug manufacturers don't want their good reputations for the standard sedation of the masses to be damaged. Most of all they don't want their bottom lines to be damaged by all the adverse publicity that such off-label use might engender. People might even get the correct idea that their favorite healthy downers could actually kill them.
 Nebraska and Nevada hope to soon start using the opioid fentanyl as a sedative. Illegal use has made it a scourge of national death statistics, but medically it is an important painkiller and anesthetic. Defense lawyers in Nebraska have argued that fentanyl comes under a federal law that limits its distribution to lifesaving purposes, and that it is therefore illegal for a prison clinic to distribute it for an execution. A trial seeking information about the source of the fentanyl is scheduled for May 14.
Who knew that actual death statistics could be as subject to a "scourge" as a living, breathing thing? Maybe these snowflake statistics need some good old preventive care. 

But seriously, people in chronic, unrelenting pain are already suffering needlessly because doctors are getting too afraid to subscribe therapeutic opioids for pain relief. So what better way to demonize these drugs and their prescribers than to re-categorize them as official execution agents? Meanwhile, I wouldn't be surprised if the death row inmate in Alabama mentioned above is being denied humane opioid therapy for his cancer because the prison is stockpiling it for future planned state-sanctioned overdoses.
In March, Oklahoma’s attorney general, Mike Hunter, said that using nitrogen was “the safest, the best and the most effective method available.”
There is scant scientific data to back up that statement. What little is known about human death by nitrogen comes from industrial and medical accidents and its use in suicide. In accidents, when people have been exposed to high levels of nitrogen and little air in an enclosed space, they have died quickly. In some cases co-workers who rushed in to rescue them also collapsed and died.
Hey, this is Oklahoma, home base of our anti-science EPA Chief Scott Pruitt. They don't need no stinkin' proof. But the part about the collateral damage to the "co-workers" is worrisome. The executioners using nitrogen might have to wear protective gas masks, which might make them look too much like KKK ghouls, which might upset the spectator-ghouls.

But look on the bright side:
Unlike lethal injection, the use of nitrogen would not require that the execution team dig around for a vein. An anesthesiologist, who requested anonymity because medical societies bar members from participating in executions or providing information to encourage them, said that nitrogen inhalation was less cruel than lethal injection. And since it presumably would involve no paralytic agent, witnesses would be able to see whether the person seemed to be suffering, he said.
Did it ever occur to the anesthesiologist too afraid to give his name that certain witnesses attend executions for the sole reason that they want to see a person suffering? I'm surprised that there isn't yet professional literature on triggers for sensitive execution witnesses, or the providing of special safe spaces for them. Maybe the State should just dose them with calming drugs before the curtain goes up on the whole grisly spectacle.

Meanwhile, the free market dogma of the profit motive for anything and everything will probably win out in the end: .
Seizures might occur from inhaling nitrogen, he said. But if the technique appears to go smoothly, he predicted that other states would quickly adopt it.
In fact, according to state documents, in May of 2016, an Arizona company sent a sales-pitch letter for nitrogen gas executions to Nebraska corrections officials. Among the standout features of its Euthypoxia Chamber: It “produces calm and sedation followed by inebriation and euphoria;” it “requires no medical expertise;” and it guarantees “the demise of any mammalian life in 4 minutes.
A humane person might be tempted to scream "a pox on all your Euthypoxia Chambers!" But remember, this is Exceptional America we're talking about. So in true efficient neoliberal spirit the Times health article concludes:
Experts on state-sanctioned execution methods suggest that the search for a palatable means of carrying out death sentences is itself uniquely American. Aside from the United States, the relatively few countries who execute prisoners typically do so by hanging, beheading or firing squad — methods which most Americans find repugnant. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that such a reaction exemplifies the collision between two contradictory traits that streak through the national identity.

“One is a tradition of tenderness, with us being the safeguard of human dignity and decency,” he said. “The other is a culture of violence. And when you’re concerned about human rights and dignity, that carries an aversion to gruesome killings by the state. But the death penalty is inherently violent — so those traditions now are really at loggerheads.”
The debate is very similar to the one about America's choice, not for peace, but between the "palatable" dropping of bombs on innocent civilians and the deployment our own precious "boots on the ground."

The Healthy Choice Times article is grotesquely framed between cruel capital punishment and loving, healthy murder. The outright abolishment of capital punishment as the most logical solution to this manufactured dilemma never even enters into the paper's equation. It's all about how to keep the spectator citizen-consumers tranquilized and happy, heads permanently buried in the suffocating quicksand of ignorance and apathy.


The Joker said...

Might as well repackage executions as spectacle and monetize them, virtually everything else in modern America has been.

As professional sports teams play off one city against another in their quest for subsidies and new stadiums, some cities are left with unoccupied older stadiums. Perhaps they could submit bids for their venues to be used as modern-day Colosseums, with the executions masquerading as "sporting" combat. One need look no further than the films Rollerball from 1975 and The Running Man from 1987 to know what the reception among those "spectator citizen-consumers" would be. I hate to say it, but it wouldn't necessarily be mostly the apathy you decry; I believe that a substantial proportion of them would attend or remotely watch such events, cheering wildly.

Jay–Ottawa said...

Cornell Law School maintains an impressive website on how various nation states administer the death sentence. There is a variety of ways to punish people with finality. Besides hanging, which is the most common way worldwide for doing away with death row inmates (sometimes preceded by flogging), there are also beheading, shooting, lethal injection, gas chamber, electrocution, stoning, and throwing people off of cliffs or other heights. When you look over the fence at other nations, the US really is a healthier place to be executed.

For example, when it comes to stoning in Iran, not only is the execution brutal, the playing field for men vs women is not level.

"Individuals sentenced to stoning are placed in a stoning pit, buried to the neck (women) or waist (men) and others hurl stones at them until they escape the stoning pit, are incapacitated, or are dead. In 2007, a condemned man “was still alive after stoning but his ear and nose had been smashed and slashed. When a forensic medicine specialist confirmed that he was still alive, Mr… [sic] smashed his head with a large concrete block and killed him.” Because men (unlike women) are only buried to the waist, men infrequently but occasionally do escape the stoning pit, which terminates the penalty."

Japan stands in contrast to Iran and the US. With a little over one third of the US population, Japan kills no more than a handful of people on average every year. In some recent years, zero. All executions take place on prison property, are hidden from the media and unannounced to the public. Death row inmates aren't told when they will be executed until the morning itself of that fine day.

Each of the 31 "retentionist" states in the US (those which still "retain" the death penalty) are free to do executions in their own way. In some states, if lethal injection doesn't work, there are legal alternatives like shooting or hanging, seldom resorted to. As a result, retentionist states and the federal government are falling behind. As Karen mentioned, there are now 2,750 (and counting) on death row waiting their turn, the backlog due in part to the difficulties of administering death by injection.

Nitrogen to the rescue. It shows promise. No need to find a vein, everybody has a nose; and the anecdotal evidence available says nitrogen works quickly with nary time for a groan or grimace.

One great but unmentioned advantage is economic. Nitrogen's greatest virtue is that it's cheap; furthermore, it might accommodate more than one person at a time if only we constructed larger gas chambers. I recall reading years ago that it cost a state more to conduct an execution of one convict than it did to keep the same prisoner behind bars until he or she died of old age. Those days are over. Nitrogen is attractively cost-effective.

After test trials of nitrogen executions by first adopter states, the remaining governors and legislators will take advantage of the savings and new efficiencies available. The use of low-cost nitrogen and the outfitting of roomier gas chambers (to accommodate more than one person at a time) will cut through the backlog in no time.

Erik Roth said...

The death penalty is barbaric. Period.

“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world: my own government; I can not be silent.”

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.