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I watched as Alabama suffocated a man to death. No, Kris Kobach, it didn’t ‘work well’ | Opinion

Our common humanity will be either our common triumph or our common downfall. Right now, it is our lack of humanity that is making room for conversations about new execution methods. We are desperate to find ways to humanely kill those we condemn. There is no humane way to kill a person. We seem so determined to go backward. Last month in Alabama, we were promised humanity in the first nitrogen hypoxia execution. What we saw was everything but.

As Kenneth Smith’s spiritual advisor, I was in the chamber before, during and after the curtains were opened for his execution. Meaning, I watched him slowly suffocate to death. There is no one alive today who has been closer to a nitrogen hypoxia execution than I have. Having witnessed four previous executions and being a student of history, I can assure you that the experimental barbarity that I witnessed has few comparisons.

Nitrogen hypoxia is not just an execution method — it is torture. And that is why I find it so curious (though not entirely surprising, based on his national reputation) that Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach is so certain that he wants to bring the same barbarity to your state.

Kobach commented in a recent interview, “I have spoken directly with the attorney general of Alabama, and he confirmed that the hypoxia method worked extremely well.”

Let me put the above quote in context. You have Kansas’ attorney general describing his desire to pursue an execution method that he has never actually seen carried out, based on the perspective of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who has never actually seen the method carried out either. Because of Kansas’ large beef industry, the juxtaposition reminds me of the old saying, “all hat and no cattle” — meaning somebody wears a big hat to hide the fact that he doesn’t actually own any cattle.

Both of these guys talk a very big game for something they’ve never even seen, much less had to carry out themselves. Runaway big government always rises and falls with such bluster.

The reason I know that Kobach’s quote is so absurd is that I did see the method carried out. I know that Marshall didn’t tell the truth and — in the most generous possible way of stating it — Kobach is being led astray. The only way that one could say that what I saw went “well” is if the only measure of “well” means that Kenneth Smith is no longer alive. If such a standard is a measurement, then we should start hanging people on a short rope and watch them squirm until they die in front of our courthouses. I’d like to think that our society has evolved beyond such lunacy. Then again, what I saw wasn’t all that far off from that.

Affixed with a gas mask that went from the top of his head to under his chin, Kenneth said goodbye. Then, the nitrogen started to flow. I watched as Kenneth’s head turned redder and redder. His body began to pump adrenaline ferociously. It looked as if his head was going to explode — perhaps even his whole body. We were told that Kenneth would go unconscious in seconds. Then, seconds started to turn into minutes. Kenneth began to heave. Each time he rose, mucus, saliva and other fluids shot from his mouth and out the front of the mask. The liquids began to drizzle down like a waterfall. His eyeballs were bulging out. Back and forth over and over, everything, everywhere moving all at once. Like a fish out of water being stepped on until they flop no more.

There are times when the bluster of politicians is nothing more than that. There are other times where that bluster has real consequences. Morality is earned, not given. Nitrogen hypoxia is evil. When the Kansas Legislature begins to discuss the possible adoption of suffocation as an execution method, I encourage legislators to not take the bait of Kobach’s declarations about its humaneness. If you’d seen what I saw, you’d know that he has absolutely, positively no idea what he is talking about.

Jeff Hood is a pastor, theologian and activist living and working in Little Rock, Arkansas.