How to Kill a Human Being: creepy and sensationalist film that ignores ethics and broader context behind capital punishment

Diene Petterle, “How to Kill a Human Being” (2008)

A rather curious BBC Horizon documentary this is, with former British Conservative politician Michael Portillo as guide, investigator and ultimately guinea pig in a quest to find a “humane” form of capital punishment that takes him through the United States prison system. The film, with voice-over narration by Paul McGann, follows Portillo on an odyssey that pits him, his health and his life against various methods that have the potential to kill humans with as minimal pain and suffering as possible including being subjected to high pressures while being whirled around at tremendously high velocities in a simulation machine and being subjected to low levels of oxygen in a capsule replicating atmospheric pressures and oxygen levels at high attitude. He investigates current methods of capital punishment such as hanging, electrocution, gassing and lethal injection and how they all fail the humane-ness criterion.

Despite Portillo’s earnest style, the film has a strong sensationalist angle by exposing him to a few near-death experiences and hovering almost obsessively over a pig carcass being barbecued in an electrocution demonstration. Close-ups of objects and actions are unbearably confronting when the camera lens is almost touching the objects it’s focussing on. The film’s po-faced approach enables it and Portillo to investigate such trivia as the formula to calculate the length of rope necessary to hang a person painlessly: too short and the person dies slowly and painfully from strangulation, too long and the person is decapitated – so for each and every person condemned to death by hanging, the rope is measured using the formula, developed by the British some time during the 19th century, which utilises a number of variables including the person’s weight.

What is missing from this documentary is an ethical basis for having capital punishment at all, let alone a humane form of capital punishment. Portillo simply side-steps the ethics of capital punishment by narrowing the subject scope to the issue of which technique causes the least pain and suffering to the prisoner being executed. He finds all current methods as used by the US penitentiary system as failing the test of being “humane”; he never stops to think that capital punishment methods might be intended to cause pain and suffering to their victims. ┬áHe favours capital punishment if it’s “humane” according to subjective criteria he writes down on a pad and leaves it at that. Nor does he defend execution on social, political or economic grounds: whether it benefits society in some way, whether it is more or less expensive than keeping the prisoner under lock and key for the rest of his or her life, whether it supports or is supported by political ideologies and if so, which ones. Is capital punishment acceptable in a society that claims to value all life and not just the lives of those individuals who conform to its rules and never question them even when they are unjust and might encourage oppression, corruption and violence?

Portillo does find a method offered by science that appears to deliver execution humanely and convinces himself, if not this viewer, that he has found the ideal form of capital punishment. Yet the documentary ends on an uncomfortable note and Portillo still seems to want to justify hypoxia induced by altitude sickness or some simulation of it as the best method. Problem is the film cuts out before he (I wish) meets a group of mountaineers or people who’ve visited Bolivia or Tibet who have first-hand experience of being hypoxic or suffering altitude sickness, and asks them if they’ve suffered unpleasant and/or painful side effects.

Quite why this program had to be made, with such a creepy premise that does not consider the ethics and morality behind capital punishment, and the social / political / economic context it takes place in and which influences it, is a worrying puzzle. Although the film can be entertaining and informative, and features mad scientist folk who gloat over what hanging can do to a victim if the rope is too long or too short and a pro-death advocate who fairly froths at the mouth at the idea that capital punishment should be made “humane”, it is also demeaning and insulting in some ways: for all its concern about the “humane” aspect of killing methods, it treats the people who might be subjected to capital punishment as consumers of an experience, as if it were no different from shopping for a travel agent to book a holiday. Little thought for how the would-be victims ended up on death row in the first place, whether they even deserve to be there or were victims of miscarriages of justice, to say nothing of the people whose lives were eliminated or otherwise affected by the criminals, is evidenced.

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