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Death penalty contradictions

By Scott Christianson
Guest Blogger

About this post: The gas chamber was first touted as a humane method of execution but its history reveals its sinister links with industry, politics and the military. In “The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber,” recently released by the University of California Press, Scott Christianson puts this form of execution in the context of Americans’ conflicted perspective on the death penalty. Here, Christianson explores how the gas chamber – from its inauguration in 1924 to its final use in 1999 – revealed a naïve quality in Americans’ image of themselves.


Americans do not see themselves as blood-thirsty, cruel or punitive people. An ethos of exceptionalism coats their wars and punishments with divine blessing.

Yet America’s enduring use of the death penalty — the United States is one of the few Western countries that still resort to executions — and the fact that it imprisons more of its citizens than any other, stands in stark contrast.

The contradictions inherent in America’s naïve self-image are exemplified in the 20th-century history of the rise and fall of the gas chamber.

The world’s first lethal gas execution was carried out on Feb. 8, 1924 at the Nevada State Prison, framed as a new and “humane” form of killing that would remove any semblance of pain for the condemned, thereby relieving society of attendant moral guilt.

At the time, such ideas were advanced by the eugenics movement, which sought to “improve the human race.” Behind the scenes, the gassing approach in particular was fostered by the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service and rapacious chemical companies that had few scruples regarding the unintended effects of their toxic products.

In the 1930s, several states rushed to construct their prison gas chambers for putting criminals to death. And many respected American physicians, social reformers and politicians called for gassing to be used on a wider scale to rid society of various “defective classes.”

Yet after it was shown how the Nazis had employed gas chambers on a massive scale to execute millions of innocent men, women and children, the horrors of the Holocaust shattered any pretense of kindness or social reform.

In 1994, a U.S. district court held that execution by lethal gas was so egregious that it violated the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishments.

But the decline of lethal gas didn’t end capital punishment here. By then a newer, “better” method of execution had been instituted. In place of gassing or electrocution, most states adopted “medicalized” lethal injection.

Although most advanced nations have outlawed the death penalty, several states and the U.S. government continue to execute selected criminals by needle.
Following our example, the world’s leading executioner — China — has also begun employing lethal injection on a large but undisclosed scale, giving the method new life.

But lethal injection is coming under increasing fire as a flawed method, prompting many observers to wonder when Americans will discard it too for another technology.

In a country that wages wars while hiding war’s costs, and which increasingly relies on drones to do its killing (as if human beings are not responsible for war’s deadly destruction), “more advanced” and “humane” methods of execution hold special appeal.

The story of the rise and fall of the gas chamber cuts to core issues of Americans’ self-worth. Its use was promoted as a means of ridding society of worthless members, without disturbing good people’s conscience.

Did gas really remove the inner suffering and barbarity of executions? Or does gas or injected anesthesia mask something deep in our psyche, something dark in our body politic?

By Scott Christianson  | November 10, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  death penalty; gas chamber; american innocence on death penalty  
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This is merely a rant. The author, Scott Christianson, employs anti-American and anti-business expressions throughout the puerile piece, but does not even address the substance of the supposed-topic: death penalty contradictions. The WaPo (again) should be ashamed for publishing this unjournalistic tirade.

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | November 10, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

There's no need for the article. Civlized people don't execute people. They can say what they want, but everyone knows they are barbarians.

Posted by: bflorhodes | November 10, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Great article. Civilized people don't execute people, but Americans do. We may call it different, kinder gentler things, but Americans need to take a look at what we do and what we have done throughout history. It is not anti-American to examine these types of issues. Does that mean that the American way is to ignor, or worse, rationalize barbaric behavior? If our conscience is not disturbed, we are further removed from the issue than we should be,

Posted by: Kw-pi | November 10, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

The use of lethal gas as a method for executing inmates fell out of favor in the US not only because of the lawsuits claiming it constituted cruel and unusual punishment, but also operational problems. The seals around windows and the entry door were found in several states to be faulty and leaked when the chamber was tested with a smoke bomb. Can't put the lives of witnesses at risk after all..

Posted by: vuac | November 11, 2010 12:59 AM | Report abuse

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