You’ll be pleased to learn that there’s nothing cruel about strapping a man down onto a gurney, jabbing a needle into his vein and running poison through his body until he dies – and there’s nothing unusual about it, either.

For months, capital punishment in the US has been on hold while the supreme court deliberated. The decision in favour of executions has to be seen in context.

Since the late nineteenth century, America has consistently chased the “humane execution”.

In 1885, David Hill, the New York governor, appointed a commission to investigate modern alternatives to the old outdoor hangings. Hill’s investigators – two lawyers and a dentist – assiduously investigated every execution method they could find, from crucifixion to blowing from cannons. They settled on electrocution.

The development of the electric chair – a quintessentially American invention – paralleled the electrification of US cities. Thomas Edison, trying to sell America on his direct current, recognised an opportunity to associate the alternating current sold by his great rival George Westinghouse with death. AC was, Edison said, ideal for painless killing – and he famously electrocuted Topsy the elephant in order to prove it.

Despite the raptures with which many liberals greeted the chair (“So enlightened! So humane!”), the first man electrocuted, a 28-year-old fruit peddler named William Kemmler executed in 1889, was basically cooked alive.

After the first thirty years or so of botched electrocutions, a certain D. A. Turner, inspired by the efficacy with which poisonous chemicals despatched soldiers during the First World War, engineered the first gas chamber. The rationale was the same: a compassionate version of the supreme punishment.

If anything, the chamber proved even uglier. In 1992, Donald Harding died from lethal gas choking so horribly that, afterwards, one of the witnessing journalists couldn’t stop crying, the attorney general vomited and the prison warden threatened to resign rather than use the chamber again.

Again the call for a civilised method; again, the resort to a new technology.

Lethal injection made its appearance in the 1970s. Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, lent his imprimatur with a folksy recollection of humanely putting sick horses to sleep.

Horses usually didn’t have collapsed veins. But the people on death row often do. Since the American Medical Association wouldn’t allow doctors to participate, it was left to untrained guards to probe for arteries with pen-knives. During the 1997 execution of Michael Elkins – whose liver disease had swollen his body – the staff took nearly an hour to get the catheter in place. Elkins eventually had to assist, asking, “Should I lean my head down a little bit?” while the executioners worked on him.

The real innovation with lethal injection was the use of a paralytic agent so that the prisoner died on the gurney without visible gagging or choking.

The procedure was, right from the start, much more pleasant for the witnesses. For the condemned, not so much.

Some experts claimed that the paralytic drug might have actually have left the condemned conscious but unable to move or speak as the other chemicals destroyed their internal organs. That was the basis for the recent appeal to the Supreme Court.

But no dice.

“Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of ‘objectively intolerable risk of harm’ that qualifies as cruel and unusual,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

In the short term, it’s unlikely that the US will be able to make inroads on China’s status as the official Olympic champion of executions, since the ruling leaves scope for further appeals.

But there’s a broader contradiction implicit in the whole concept of humane executions. Let’s say the American prisons developed a new technology that allowed prisoners to be killed so efficiently that no-one – neither the inmate, the executioners nor the witnesses – felt a thing.

How would you describe that kind of emotional anaesthesia in the face of human extinction? The clinical term is “psychosis”, and the attempt to induce it seems a very strange goal for a legal system.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.

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