America’s Dark Descent – The Nitrogen Gas Execution Controversy

In the shadows of capital punishment, the United States' hypocrisy becomes a stark mockery of human rights and social justice.

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Kenneth Smith, left, poses Monday with his spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeff Hood.

Editorial

In the hushed chambers of Alabama’s execution room, a gruesome chapter in the United States’ sordid history of capital punishment unfolded on Thursday night. Kenneth Smith, a death row inmate, became the first to succumb to death by nitrogen gas—a new and controversial method that raises disturbing questions about the nation’s commitment to human rights and the pursuit of justice.

As the curtain fell on Smith’s life, the world witnessed an experiment in cruelty, an untested method that emerged from the shadows of legal systems and ethical considerations. This macabre spectacle not only undermines the very essence of the United States’ proclaimed advocacy for social justice and human rights on a global scale but exposes a hypocritical facade that cannot be ignored.

Smith, sentenced to death for a 1988 murder-for-hire case, had already survived a failed attempt at lethal injection in 2022. His execution by nitrogen gas, touted as a humane alternative, unfolded as a nightmare that experts warned could lead to excessive pain or even torture. Witnesses described the horror—a conscious man convulsing, gasping, and heaving on the gurney as the nitrogen took effect.

Alabama’s adoption of nitrogen hypoxia in 2018 marked a departure from conventional execution methods, joining the ranks of Oklahoma and Mississippi. However, it is the only state with a protocol for this method, pushing the boundaries of cruelty in the name of justice. The argument that nitrogen gas execution is painless lacks scientific support, with United Nations experts expressing grave concerns about the potential for a “painful and humiliating death.”

Smith’s spiritual adviser, who witnessed the execution, painted a grim picture—describing it as “the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.” In contrast, the Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner, John Hamm, attempted to downplay the disturbing scenes, attributing involuntary movements and agonal breathing to expected side effects. Such callousness in the face of human suffering epitomizes a system that prioritizes vengeance over compassion.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to opposing excessive criminal punishment, argued that Smith’s life should have been spared based on the previous botched execution attempt. The mere existence of such failures raises alarming questions about the competence and ethics of a system entrusted with the irreversible act of taking human life.

The international community, too, did not remain silent. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, expressed deep regret over the execution, highlighting serious concerns about the novel and untested method amounting to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Türk urged all states to implement a moratorium on the death penalty, emphasizing that it is inconsistent with the fundamental right to life.

In the grand narrative of human rights and social justice, the United States, once a self-proclaimed beacon of democracy, stands exposed. The execution of Kenneth Smith, marred by a botched process and global condemnation, underscores the urgent need for a reassessment of the country’s commitment to the principles it espouses on the global stage. The world is watching, and the time for genuine introspection and reform is long overdue.

Sri Lanka Guardian

The Sri Lanka Guardian is an online web portal founded in August 2007 by a group of concerned Sri Lankan citizens including journalists, activists, academics and retired civil servants. We are independent and non-profit. Email: editor@slguardian.org

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