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Opening Arguments

Not so dead simple

What's next? Hanging? Stoning? Burning at the stake? The guillotine?

The Alabama House passed a bill this week that would allow the state to once again put people to death by electric chair if the currently low supply of lethal injection drugs runs out or if the Supreme Court places limits on which drugs can be used to execute inmates in a case currently pending before the justices.

The vote came just days after a majority Utah’s legislature approved a bill to bring back the practice of executing people by firing squad. Other states are debating the merits of using gas chambers.

After the European Union banned exports of drugs used to kill human beings in 2011, states have been scrambling to find a reliable supply, often turning to secret, poorly regulated sources.

These bills to revive older methods of execution were proposed following a series of botched executions in which inmates suffered long and seemingly painful deaths — calling into question whether the drugs are as effective and “humane” as their supporters claimed.

Every time we've changed the method of execution, it's been to make it more "humane." And we've finally come upon a method that is supposedly the humanest yet but uses chemicals that have been co-opted from the healing arts. So when the substitutes for the no-longer-available chemicals creat suffering, we go back to find more humaneness.

As I've said here before the real moral question (which I've gone back and forth on all of my adult life) is whether to execute or not, not how much or how little agony we create in the last few minutes of the condemned's life. Once we've dispatched someone to eternity, it seems hardly essential to worry about the temporary suffering we've imposed, however intense it was.