The state of California is the scene of a brouhaha surrounding the death penalty. Like many other states which execute people, California uses lethal injection. This was challenged by Michael Morales' lawyer, on the grounds that lethal injection is cruel and unusual. (Mr. Morales was due to exit this world last night, but the execution was delayed until tonight; full details at the S. F. Chronicle for the interested) The lawyer claims that the sequence of drug injections may not cause the executee to be completely unconscious before the actual death process begins, and therefore he may feel excruciating pain. The state has actually accepted this argument, and assigned an anesthesiologist to attend the execution, to make sure Mr. Morales is completely out before beginning the actual lethal injection.
Full disclosure: I have serious reservations on the use of the death penalty. The argument that it is a deterrent doesn't seem to be supported by the facts, except in case of the executed person; it does deter him from future criminal acts. The morality of the state offing people in my name bothers me; if it's wrong for me to kill, why is it right for the state to kill in my name, and when does state execution become simple revenge, as opposed to justice? Mr. Morales, like many of the people we execute, has committed a heinous crime, a rape and murder; but I'm not sure that gives us a moral justification for executing him. There's no question that legally we can do so. And at least in California, it's much more expensive to execute someone than it is to jail him for life without possibility of parole, and the state of California is broke. It seems to me that we could assume a more moral stance and save some cash by discontinuing executions.
Leaving aside the issue of whether we should execute, let's get back to how. Many states went to lethal injection because everybody agreed that the previous methods (hanging, the gas chamber, the electric chair - remember "Ol' Sparky" in Florida? Which, BTW, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1997 was not cruel and unusual...) were "cruel and unusual". They probably weren't so by the standards of the framers of the Constitution - in fact, hanging was the 18th century norm. The 18th century probably would have found gas chambers and electric chairs "unusual". We'll have to wonder whether they would have thought them "cruel".
If lethal injection is now also too "cruel" to use (you can't really call it "unusual" when most of the states that execute use it), let's resurrect an execution method which was specifically designed to be quick, efficient, and probably as pain-free as dying violently ever is:
Let's bring back the guillotine. The guillotine (see WikiPedia) was designed to be a humane method of execution (at least compared to the methods that had been used; the WikiPedia article has some background on those for the curious), and to execute people quickly and with a minimum of pain. It's certainly efficient; the French Revolutionaries used it to execute somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 people suspected of "crimes against liberty", over about 13 months. We won't need to use it nearly that often.
In fact, let's go all the way back: to public executions. Set up the guillotine in a public place with lots of room for spectators. If we're going to do this, let's all watch it, and see what the state is doing in our name. In fact, let's put it on television. Public executions used to be considered great entertainment for the whole family, although by the end of the French Reign of Terror, the crowds had thinned, as people grew bored. I wonder how a televised execution would stack up against "Survivor"?