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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 22, 2024

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Over a decade ago, the BBC came out with a documentary titled How to Kill a Human Being that went into what the director believed to be the most humane and painless way to execute someone if you really wish to do so. Towards the end of the documentary, they interview someone who believes that death row criminals don’t deserve the most humane death possible because those criminals hardly offered their own victims a humane death. The documentary gives it an air of “Look, we’ve found a humane way to actually do executions, and these barbaric Americans don’t want to do that because to them, bloodthirsty cruelty is the point.”

Well, what do you know, Alabama has now actually implemented this “most humane” form of execution for the first time, and news coverage from the BBC and others have been almost exclusively negative. There’s little to no nuance, just statements that the UN and EU condemns this “particularly cruel and unusual punishment.” Where now is the context that the US is merely doing what it was previously criticized for not doing?

To be sure, the scene of thrashing does seem to be more violent than the documentary insinuated such an execution would be, but that itself appears to be because the inmate tried to forcibly hold their breath for as long as possible instead of allowing themselves to pass out from hypoxia. I wouldn’t pin the blame for voluntary thrashing on the method of execution.

What do you think? Am I wrong in reading this as just another case of “Americans can do nothing right”?

The sociological interest lies in watching people fail to join the dots.

The airplane safety card has a section on depressurization and the oxygen masks dropping down. "Put your own mask on first."

The danger being guarded against is that the parent takes too long trying to fit the mask on their frightened child and the parent passes out themselves. But how could that happen? Surely the parent soon suffers respiratory distress that forces them to fit their own mask before resuming helping their child? No. Hypoxia doesn't work like that. It is the carbon dioxide that makes you want to breath and the parent is breathing that out just fine. You can pass out from hypoxia with very little warning. I think this is now widely know, mostly due to the warning on the airplane safety card. The warning retains its place on the terse card because they want every-one to know.

There are other routes to this knowledge. Starving My Brain of Oxygen…For Safety?!? is two minute video on pilot training

Without proper training, pilots may not recognize the symptoms of hypoxia

More on the hypoxia training story I was looking for a much older video, which I think was an upload of a historical film of hypoxia training for pilots, with the low oxygen environment being some kind of Nissen hut. Hypoxia training isn't new.

There is a classic industrial accident involving a storage tank. Workman climbs down inside to do maintenance after the tank has been drained. But the residual chemicals have reacted with the oxygen, so he climbs down into a nitrogen atmosphere and dies. His safety buddy sees that he has passed out and, forgetting his training, climbs inside to do a heroic rescue. He also dies. Do you prefer Deaths from Environmental Hypoxia and Raised Carbon Dioxide or Confined Spaces Deadly Spaces: Preventing Confined Space Accidents? The YouTube video has a cute animation with a plumber with a mustache (Mario?) testing the air in the sewer. This also happens down on the farm Incident Investigation: Worker Loses Consciousness in Manure Spreader Tank | WorkSafeBC.

News coverage pretends to know none of this

In his Guardian interview, Smith said he feared that if Alabama carried out his execution it would put the new killing method of nitrogen hypoxia on the map.

The news coverage makes it seem that you can blunder into a confined space with little oxygen, gasp and struggle, and face the horrifying prospect that if you cannot escape in twenty-two minutes, then the lack of oxygen will kill you. And that this is a new hazard. I would feel more comfortable with agit-prop headlines screaming: Capitalism has been killing workers with nitrogen hypoxia for decades.

I'm feeling a little lost. Was the execution deliberately botched by pro-death-penalty activists trying to persuade the impalers and the crucifiers that the method is sufficiently cruel? Were the difficulties invented by anti-death-penalty activists trying to persuade us that the method is excessively cruel? I can tell that I'm being lied to, but not why or by whom or which details are false.

I can also see that the lying isn't being called out, perhaps not even noticed. The lies contradict well known stories about how the world works and how to avoid being killed by it, and yet people don't seem to join the dots and complain about the contradictions. That troubles me.

There is a classic industrial accident involving a storage tank.

You may appreciate USCSB's "Hazards of Nitrogen Asphyxiation" video as well.

Was the prisoner a heavy smoker? The details are hazy, but I remember reading that the respiratory system of a smoker is so accustomed to high CO2 levels in the lungs that it uses O2 leves to drive the breathing cycle instead.

No, he's been in prison for 35 years. If he was a heavy smoker beforehand(very plausible) he's been clean for decades.

You can't smoke in American prisons? TIL

Not officially, no. All American prisons are- I think the Russian term is ‘red prisons’, where they’re controlled by the gangs, so some do anyways- but death row inmates are highly monitored and separated from the general population.

It's the other way around. "Black prisons" are those where the wardens let the prisoners manage themselves as long as a semblance of discipline is maintained, "red prisons" are those where the wardens manage everything by the book.

However, smoking isn't banned in Russian prisons no matter their color. It's banned in control units of various kinds, but if your specific punishment type includes a walk, you are allowed to smoke during it.

The "red" ones are cop prisons. Gang prisons are "black".

Oh, then they’re black prisons.

If pop culture has taught me anything, they're too busy using them as currency to actually smoke them.

CO2 is not relevant in this case. Death is due to hypoxia, not CO2 poisoning.

Yes, but the gasping reflex is driven by CO2 levels in healthy humans and O2 levels in smokers.

I found an article with a detailed timeline. It says that the attorney general gave officials the go-ahead for the execution at 7:56. It then says that Smith "began to shake and writhe violently" at 7:58, and that this lasted around 2 minutes. It then says he began taking deep gasping breaths and that his breathing was no longer visible at 8:08 (unclear if it was visible at 8:07 and then stopped, or if that is just when the journalist first noted it was not visible). It quotes the Alabama Corrections Commissioner as saying the nitrogen gas flowed for 15 minutes. So the most obvious possibility, assuming that he held his breath and then began to shake either when they began the gas or after he started running out of oxygen, would be that he lost consciousness in 2-4 minutes and took 10-12 minutes to stop breathing. It is also possible he began to shake before they began administering the gas, in an attempt to get the execution delayed again like had happened previously, in which case the timeline would be less clear.

The BBC article quotes Alabama journalist Lee Hedgepeth as saying that "Kenny just began to gasp for air repeatedly and the execution took about 25 minutes total.". My first thought reading this (and the beginning of the post I was writing before deciding to try finding an actual timeline), was that "total" could include the time before they began administering the gas, the time after he lost consciousness, and the time after he was dead when they still had the mask running or were otherwise doing something that the journalist considered part of the execution process. In classic "The Media Very Rarely Lies" fashion, mentioning "total" execution time after mentioning him gasping for air makes it sound like he was living/conscious/suffering for 25 minutes after they began the gas, but does not actually say so. The timeline confirms it, there was 22 minutes between when they opened the curtains at 7:53 and closed them at 8:15. So the 22 minutes includes before the execution was ordered, after he was unconscious, and after he was dead (and then Hedgepeth rounded up to 25).

The Department of Corrections had required Hood to sign a waiver agreeing to stay 3 feet (0.9 meters) away from Smith’s gas mask in case the hose supplying the nitrogen came loose.

It is a deficiency in the article that it fails to mention the composition of the air that Hood was breathing. It would have clarified why Smith's attempt to avoid hypoxia by holding his breath demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the peril he faced.

I can tell that I'm being lied to, but not why or by whom or which details are false.

Execution being botched is also possible, all reported facts can be true here.