Horizon: How To Kill a Human Being

January 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

BBC2, Tuesday 15th January

This Tuesday’s episode of Horizon saw former Conservative MP, Michael Portillo, investigate the humaneness of execution. Uplifting doesn’t quite spring to mind does it? Michael, who once voted in favour of the policy in Britain in the ‘80s yet took the opposite stance ten years later concerned by miscarriages of justice, observed here a series of experiments including hanging, electrocution and gassing in order to establish the most benevolent way to kill someone.

No mistaking, this was a dispassionate scientific enquiry into the stress levels of being snuffed. Motivated by the notion that the lethal injection will soon be banned in the US and stunned that very little research into less traumatic alternatives has been carried out, we saw him look at other options. In order to remain calm, he attempted to co-operate by breathing deeply in a simulation of a gas chamber but funnily enough, working as a team with your killer proves to be a tad against one’s instinct. Spinning around in a human centrifuge until everything goes grey and eventually disappears was closer to Michael’s ideal death-situation but extreme altitude sickness through hypoxia (starving the brain of oxygen) won out. In this experiment he became increasingly euphoric, unable to perform simple tasks and had this continued, he would have slipped into a coma and died. This, being actually quite a pleasurable experience he concluded, was the best way to go.

One might think that Mr. Portillo, championing kindness to the condemned, might have taken a bit more time to think about the question of capital punishment itself. Yet, this ethical issue being somewhat glossed over, the whole thing was a bit too detached for my liking. No doubt, the programme proved very informative on the effects of different death-inducing procedures and should I need to draw on this knowledge when the discussion, “What’s the best way to die?? comes up in the pub I am now fully equipped. However, the detail rather took away any alarm that as a result of all of these processes human lives will actually be wiped out. I was left a little bemused at the exclusiveness of Michael’s compassion. Kill them! But kill them gently.

In the end, I couldn’t help but feel he was arguing beyond the major moral grey. Those passionately against capital punishment, unwilling to see it as anything less than barbaric and on the other side the fervently-in-favour, for whom the idea of the sentenced going out with ease is unfitting let alone with a grin from ear to ear, would have just switched off. Yep, this one was for the morbid fact fiends.

By Susan Allen