A “I Must Be Missing Something” Ethics Quiz: Arizona’s Execution Option [Corrected]

gas chamber

Usually ethics quizzes on Ethics Alarms involve borderline ethics conflicts or dilemmas that I can’t make up my own mind about. Not this one: on this one: my mind is virtually made up. The arguments that the Arizona plan to use cyanide gas in future executions is an ethics outrage because of previous uses of cyanide gas seem contrived, emotional, and, frankly, weird, with no ethical validity whatsoever. But the intensity of these arguments make me wonder if I’m missing something, and Voilà! An Ethics Quiz!

The state of Arizona allows condemned inmates to choose the gas chamber, rather than lethal injection, if they committed a capital offense before November 23, 1992. Arizona’s attorney general, Mark Brnovich, is seeking to complete the execution of two men who committed murders before that date, and Arizona officials are reconditioning the state’s mothballed gas chamber in case they pick gas over a shot. Arizona authorities plan to use, if it comes to that, hydrogen cyanide to concoct the fatal agent of death. Cyanide gas is a particular gruesome way to die. It takes almost 20 minutes, in some cases, and this is a problem for some people.

Not for me: I find the obsession with making sure executions of the upper tier monsters who earn capitol punishment as pleasant as a spring day to be incomprehensible, and always have. We’re killing someone. It might hurt a little, and it won’t be pretty. An 18 minute judicially sanctioned death isn’t “cruel and unusual,” especially if the subject chose it. What I find cruel and unusual is the way our endless system of appeals dangles executions over the heads of Death Row inmates like a Sword of Damocles from Hell.

But I digress. No, the objection to the gas chamber option in Arizona (unless it’s part of a disingenuous strategy to try to stop executions generally, which wouldn’t surprise me) is that the poison gas the state plans to use would mean that the executions would be carried out using the same poison used in Nazi death camps. Headlines noting that hydrogen cyanide was the same poison contained in Zyklon B has provoked an outcry among Auschwitz survivors in Germany and Israel. “For Auschwitz survivors, the world will finally come apart at the seams, if in any place on this earth the use of Zyklon B in the killing of human beings is considered again,” Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee, said in an interview. “In their eyes, this is a disgraceful act that is unworthy of any democracy and, moreover, insults the victims of the Holocaust,” he said.

To begin with, nobody will be using Zyklon B, which was a trade name and a particular product made by a particular company. When an advocate uses a deliberately misleading or emotion-based argument, I become suspicious of the advocate. But what is the objection here? It seems like a bizarre cognitive dissonance exercise regarding a matter that requires no further dissonance. A short supply of lethal drugs has pushed several states to seek alternatives, as in South Carolina, where lawmakers have proposed reviving either the electric chair or firing squads. Wait though: many Holocaust victims were shot. Doesn’t using a firing squad constitute the same “insult” to Holocaust survivors?

Where did the idea come from that any execution method that was used unjustly on others by another culture at another time is permanently unsuitable for carrying out a legitimate and just death sentence? Must Arizona beat its condemned to death with frozen wombats to make sure its executions are sufficiently unique?

The objection to the choice of poison in Arizona seems be a matter of “Ick” rather than ethics. Any method of killing a human being is icky by definition. How icky is too icky?

As I said at the outset, I don’t get it. But anyway…

Your Ethics Quiz of the Day is this:

Is it unethical for Arizona to use the same poison to execute condemned prisoners that was used by the Nazis at Auschwitz?

24 thoughts on “A “I Must Be Missing Something” Ethics Quiz: Arizona’s Execution Option [Corrected]

  1. This is where my mind immediately went:

    “Wait though: many Holocaust victims were shot. Doesn’t using a firing squad constitute the same “insult” to Holocaust survivors?”

    That seems to be a fair analogy to make. Thus, I think the answer to those questions would be extremely helpful in analyzing the argument being made. Having said that, I am not optimistic that the answer to those questions would be persuasive.

    -Jut

  2. Nazis carried out executions used firing squads, individual shooters, hangings, beatings, guillotines, carbon monoxide gas trucks, gas chambers. They were mostly concerned by the economics and speed of the method. The Japanese used beheading by sword. I do not think the method of execution has any ethical significance assuming that the judgement of the condemned is justified.

  3. QUESTION: Is it unethical for Arizona to use the same poison to execute condemned prisoners that was used by the Nazis at Auschwitz?

    ANSWER: No.
    ======================================================
    DIFFERENT QUESTION: Will it be objectionable to some people for Arizona to use the same poison to execute condemned prisoners that was used by the Nazis at Auschwitz?

    ANSWER TO DIFFERENT QUESTION: Yes.
    ======================================================
    LAST QUESTION: Should we allow a few whining snowflakes to control how we execute those convicted of capital crimes where the sentence is death?

    ANSWER: No!
    ======================================================
    I wonder what fattymoon’s reply to this one ethics question would be.

  4. No.

    Follow up question: Should Arizona authorities be concerned about what people on the”other side of the world” think about their execution methods? A– No.

    • I’m certain they would only be allowed to use wombats who had died of natural causes, or those who were frozen through natural means, such as falling through the ice on a frozen lake.

  5. “For Auschwitz survivors, the world will finally come apart at the seams, if in any place on this earth the use of Zyklon B in the killing of human beings is considered again,”

    Wait a minute. For someone who survived Auschwitz (and the eighty or so years since), this will cause the world to come apart at the seams? Surely you jest. Their world was literally torn apart at the seams eighty years ago and this will undo them? People who survived the NAZI’s industrial murder of millions of men, women and children because they were Jewish (among other bogus reasons) are snowflakes of the sort attending Yale these days? That’s an insult.

    This guy Heubner should be ashamed of himself for making such a pathetic PR play. His board should fire him.

    And where was this objection during the ‘fifties and ‘sixties? Why didn’t people in California have a fit when “The Perry Mason Show” invariably had Perry talking about how his clients were facing the gas chamber? I bet there were a ton of Auschwitz survivors in Hollywood at that time.

  6. “Where did the idea come from that any execution method that was used unjustly on others by another culture at another time is permanently unsuitable for carrying out a legitimate and just death sentence?”

    This. I mean, that.

    And there’s the rub. The execution method used unjustly at another time (specifically, during the reign of the Third Reich) was used by another GOVERNMENT – not by another culture as the term typically means. That government (of few, ruling over many) was the result of a hijacking of the powers of governance. Hence it was not a democratic government, wherein the will of the majority of the people in the society is exercised by trustworthy and ethically behaving agents acting on behalf of the majority. It was a government of, by, and for the Nazis, particularly, the Nazis in the highest stations of power; it hijacked “culture,” too, imposing its own twisted values and mores. The culture of the Nazis was not the culture of the people the Nazis bullied into submission. You can make arguments about the dearth of Dietrich Bonhoeffers and the sheeple-ness of “good Germans,” and assert that all Germans were “responsible” for the horrors of the Nazis’ brutality. But the truth is, the climate of terror imposed by the Nazis completely suppressed, emasculated, and temporarily rendered unconscious the true culture of the German people. For example, I don’t think many of the prized works of art that the Nazis looted and hoarded were produced by “good Nazis” between, say, 1925 and 1945. The only parts of the German culture that were allowed to exist were those elements that were of primary interest and advantage to the Nazis.

    Incidentally, the parallels between the Nazi regime of Germany in the 1930s-1940s and the current Executive Order-romancing regime and its ostensible private-sector toadies in this country are alarming – to make an understatement.

    I don’t think another execution should take place in this country – not by the feds, not by any state, not by any method – unless and until formal, popular votes of confidence in the justice systems confirm consensus on the trustworthiness and competence of those systems: one such vote for the federal system. and one such vote by the people of each state for their respective state’s system. Such a vote should be taken annually – i.e., inside of election cycles.

    Let us just see – expressed at the ballot box – just who trusts whom to decide whom to kill and when. You can be damned sure that for the rest of my life, I’m not going to vote to allow the death penalty – neither federal, nor in any state, not even my home state of Texas. For now, I’ll trust unelected, un-appointed, politically unconnected (for the most part, like most of us are) Texans to use their guns to stop, while in the act when they can, the perps who deserve death. But I won’t trust the governor or the judges or the crews employed under those persons’ powers.

      • THANK YOU for fixing the missing bold-off mark! I don’t think we (Allies) could have “won the peace” if we had treated western Germans during the post-war the way the Russians treated the eastern Germans. Same with the people of Japan. There’s a type or level of accountability for “the masses” that is honorable; to say “absolutely accountable” is to endorse “absolute retribution” which would just be more genocide.

  7. I’m going to disagree in style if not in substance. While the gas chamber is archaic and less effective, if the condemned has options, and decides to choose it… I don’t think refusing that based on some historical simile is really material. That said, I, perhaps unsurprisingly disagree with this;

    “I find the obsession with making sure executions of the upper tier monsters who earn capitol punishment as pleasant as a spring day to be incomprehensible, and always have.”

    It’s very comprehensible. We’re supposed to be better than them. We’re not monsters. We’re not going to make someone suffer more than they have to out of some petty sense of vindictive justice. The human body has many mysteries, but how to end a life quickly and humanely is not one of them.

    • I think the idea is that making it “less gruesome”, or the argument that we “should” as a civil society also tends remove thoughts about what the victims suffered, which is often horrendously and truly gruesome.

      I don’t per se have an objection making the switch from electric chair to chemical cocktail, for instance, because a moral person who doesn’t have the mind of a killer has to administer the sentence.

      That said, some part of me says when you cross that particular, heinous line, you forfeit the right to complain about how long you’re on death row, the Sword of Damocles, or any other question of how the sentence should be carried out.

      To the question, no. In a functioning civil society, the “how” is not determined by a small minority no matter how they’ve suffered, it’s determined by that society. While I find Jack’s Indian example outside what I advocate for, I’m not sure I’d do much to object, unless I was the guy who put the block of wood in place… chicken? Unethical? The (irony of) the TV show Baretta theme song?

  8. As for methods of execution:
    Why don’t authorities simply put the condemned person in a sealed pressure chamber and slowly suck the air out until the chamber can no longer support human life? The brain of the person goes to sleep when their oxygen level gets too low and then they simply die of asphyxiation while they’re asleep. The brain cannot survive without enough oxygen so it dies first and the rest of the body soon follows. Without a functioning brain, as in brain dead, the arguments around being humane become irrelevant. There’s no chemicals, no bullets, no gasses, no blood, etc there’s just a vacuum pump and a sealed pressure chamber.

        • Quick, and relatively painless. I don’t know why “bloodless” even is a concern. India had an execution method that was also quick and humane, but definitely not bloodless: A well-trained elephant would rest his foot on the condemned’s head, which wad on a block, and on command, squash it like a grape. A pile driver could do the same thing.

          • Jack wrote, ” I don’t know why “bloodless” even is a concern.”

            Why did they basically eliminate things like firing squads, decapitations, hanging, etc in the USA, it’s got to do with perceptions of being humane to both the executed and the perception of the audience whether present or not, nothing more. One decapitation can have far reaching affects of how the people view their government.

  9. Exectution via gas chamber is horrific and revolting: Good.

    I’m in favor of the death penalty, but we should never fool ourselves into thinking the execution of a human being isn’t an extremely grim and horrible business. Shooting a rabid dog (that once may have been a beloved pet) is also horrible, but sometimes its necessary. We do what we have to do to help innocent people live in peace, and sometimes that means we have to put down a rabid dog. Or human.

  10. Using cyanide gas isn’t unethical, but it seems unnecessarily risky to me. Injected poison is far more controllable and predictable than a gas, which will go wherever it will if there’s a leak, faulty seal, breakdown in protocol, etc, that allows the gas to escape the chamber. There are countless ways to end a human life without resorting to complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions.

  11. I just saw a headline that the last liberator of Auschwitz, David Dushman, has passed at 98.

    Yes, there’s an ick factor. Simply the purposeful methodical death of a citizen by that person’s government is an ick. Hundreds of millions of people, A tiny fraction in Zyklon B pseudo-shower rooms. More than the entire present-day population of the United States has had lives ended this century due to sanctioned government violence.

    Heck, there ate lots of fruits that society has leveraged from the less-than ethical WWII-era Germany. Medical knowledge. Hugo Boss. America may have never won the Space Race if it weren’t for Operation Paperclip. The VW beetle, legend has production requested by Hitler himself, the most widely produced vehicle ever–only outpaced by the Little Tykes Cozy Coupe.

    Well, Ted Bundy was also a Beetle fan. That still doesn’t change the base utility of the vehicle that made it so popular.

    Should we abandon efficiency methods and record-keeping tools because of historical links to IBM? How much of modern computing do we need to subtract to remove IBM’s influence?

    No, these aren’t ethical considerations. They’re luddite guilt by association considerations.

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