Ready, Aim, Fire! — Execution By Firing Squad Given A Shot

Asked to name current execution methods in the U.S., most citizens will cite either the electric chair or lethal injection. But a few states have turned to Door C–death by firing squad. And to no one’s surprise, death penalty opponents characterize this third method as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Should the old-time execution method of a firing squad be given a shot?

The question has come to a head in South Carolina where a death warrant for 57-year-old Richard Moore was issued. The set execution date of April 29th is on hold with the South Carolina Supreme Court approving a temporary stay of execution. Should the execution go forward in the intended manner, Moore would become the first inmate to be put to death by firing squad in that state. The proposed manner of his execution has become the target (pun intended) of death penalty protestors who’ve labeled this method as unconstitutional.

What does the Constitution have to do with executions, you ask? Six words in the Eighth Amendment, a part of the Bill of Rights which was ratified in 1791, come into play: “nor cruel or unusual punishments inflicted.” Firing squad opponents hang their arguments on these words to shoot down this execution method.

Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers didn’t provide a glossary behind the Constitution and its amendments, so it’s impossible to know exactly what they meant by either “cruel” or “unusual.” But whipping, stocks, and branding with a hot iron were in use during their time. The drafters of the Eight Amendment wanting to avoid the public shame and pain such punishments brought is a reasonable assumption with their use of the terms “cruel” and “unusual.”

Death by firing squad has been an accepted method for executions for quite some time, particularly for the military. It was deemed a fitting punishment for the offenses of treason, desertion, and mutiny, among others. Numerous soldiers were executed in this way during the Civil War. According to historians, 433 of the 573 soldiers executed in that time faced a firing squad. (Would this historical evidence be characterized as a “smoking gun?”)

The term “squad” is appropriate because more than one shooter is utilized, and all shooters fire simultaneously. Traditionally, not all the shooters are given live rounds, allowing them to preserve deniability for the death. In South Carolina, three shooters are used to execute the condemned, but all are provided weapons having live ammo. Squad members are volunteers from the Department of Corrections trained in the use of weapons. (Translate: Trained marksmen = less chance of botched execution.)

Forget the dramatic scenes from movies where the condemned stands in a field, is shot, and falls to the ground or in a pit or grave behind him which has already been dug. In South Carolina, the condemned is strapped into a metal firing squad chair in the “death chamber.” A metal chair sounds stark, but comfort really isn’t a concern at that point. A hood is placed over the condemned’s head, and a small “aim point” (perhaps an “X?”) is placed over his heart. The firing squad stands 15′ away behind a wall of the chamber and fire rifles through an aperture in that wall. Bulletproof glass in the chamber protects those witnessing the execution in an adjoining area.

Using a firing squad is cheaper than maintaining an electric chair or purchasing lethal drugs, but is this method “cruel?” Legal debates rage, but one U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer seems favorable to the method. She wrote in a 2017 opinion that “In addition to being more instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless.” Using “Old Sparky,” the nickname given most electric chairs, in contrast might be more painful with electricity surging through the condemned’s body.

Undoubtedly, the firing squad method reduces the time for suffering, assuming any occurs. The gunshot is delivered to a vital organ, i.e., the heart, bringing quick death. A doctor’s experiment during an execution of a Utah inmate in the 1930’s supports this conclusion. The prisoner allowed the doctor to hook him up to an electrocardiogram as he faced the firing squad. The device registered 15.6 seconds before his heart stopped after being shot. (NOTE: This is a fine example of multitasking–execution and science experiment rolled into one.)

A lethal injection, in contrast, takes several minutes for death to occur, and instances of botched executions in that manner have been reported. In 2014, an Oklahoma prisoner writhed, groaned, and convulsed for over forty minutes. While the man surely wanted to live longer, he certainly didn’t want to do so under excruciatingly painful circumstances.

Why a return to execution by firing now? One driving factor is the lack of availability of the drugs needed for a lethal injection. Typically, a three-drug cocktail is utilized for executions, and South Carolina hasn’t possessed a usable dose of lethal injection drugs since 2013. Lack of these drugs is attributable to drug companies’ reluctance to have their products used to kill people, leading to a shortage.

Because of this drug shortage, in May of 2021 South Carolina’s governor signed a bill into law which allowed inmates to choose their method of execution–firing squad or electric chair. Talk about picking your poison….South Carolina is one of a handful of states authorizing this execution method; the others are Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah.

But just because the method is authorized doesn’t mean that it’s being used. According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, only three executions in the U.S. have been carried out by firing squad since reinstatement of the death penalty nationally in 1976. And all three of those executions were conducted in Utah. Nevertheless, no firing squad executions have occurred in over a decade.

While the acceptability of using a firing squad in general may not be resolved immediately, the life of at least one condemned S. C. prisoner hangs in the balance now. Hopefully a quick resolution of his case will take place. To me, it is cruel and unusual to have the condemned remain in limbo for an extended time as to whether he will live or be executed no matter by what method.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Is it the method itself or simply the fact someone is being put to death that’s the crux of death penalty opponents’ objections? If you were to be executed, what method would you select–injection, electrocution, or shooting? Should all shooters in a firing squad be given live ammo or should one receive a non-lethal bullet?

Printing Progress–Books, Guns, And Now Buildings

3D printed home produced by ICON

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 1400’s revolutionized the world by allowing the production of books and newspapers. In 2022, printing has leapt beyond mere written material–guns and even buildings now come hot off the press. It’s not just any press though; it’s a 3D printer. Additive manufacturing is providing stunning, and scary, results.

What’s additive manufacturing (“AM”)? This term is the industrial production name for 3D printing. AM is a computer-controlled process in which three dimensional objects are created from the depositing of materials, typically in layers. While the term itself sounds innocuous, the 3D results can be quite threatening. Think, “Stick ’em up!”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware of an alarming rise in gun violence in the United States. Contributing to this weapon-fueled mayhem are “ghost guns.” These are not guns wielded by spirits, but they do contribute to death and destruction. Such guns are brought to us courtesy of AM. You can print your own weapon right at home. (But please don’t do it!)

Ghost guns are unregistered and untraceable homemade weapons produced by a 3D printer or assembled from a kit. News reports indicate that less that $200 allows John Q. Public to produce his own ghost gun. You too could build an illegal plastic weapon that’s untraceable and can pass undetected through a metal detector. Printing a Bible is great progress, but printing a deadly weapon? Yikes!

AM stretches beyond production of weapons. Guns are generally small, but 3D printing can create huge things such as buildings too. Yes, BUILDINGS. Think houses, military barracks, schools, and apartment buildings. Dubai, for example, boasts a 6,900 square foot office complex courtesy of AM. And to show the country is on the leading edge of technology, Dubai has set a goal of having 25% of its new buildings 3D printed by 2030.

Americans are also getting in on the action of AM to produce buildings. The Texas Military Department partnered with ICON, an Austin-based construction technology company, to design and build the biggest 3D printed military barracks in North America. This 3,800 square foot facility at Camp Swift Training Center in Bastrop, Texas is able to house 72 National Guard soldiers. Printed in concrete, the barracks were produced at one-third the cost of traditional construction methods and can last for decades. While 3D printed barracks may not sound luxurious, it sure beats roughing it in tents in the great outdoors.

Non-profits are also embracing AM as they seek to provide affordable housing and educational facilities. One such non-profit, Colorado-based Thinking Huts, has a mission to increase global access to education through 3D printing. Don’t have a school? Let’s print one out for you! With AM, a school can be built in less than a week as opposed to months via traditional construction.

Because 3D printing has comparatively low cost and a quick turnaround time, this method may be a tool in dealing with disaster relief and housing shortages. In fact, AM offers the ability to build houses faster, cheaper, and more accurately than ever. Why is the process cheaper? It is machine led, so skilled labor is not required. A house 3D printer only takes one person to monitor it, so the labor cost is lessened. Hmm. Are the machines headed for a take over?

In addition to reduced production costs, 3D printing’s also more environmentally friendly. It only uses the exact amount of material required to build a house. The technique also allows environmental concessions in a house’s design. In July 2018, a French family moved into a four bedroom AM home, becoming the first family to live in a 3D-printed house. This structure was built to curve around environmentally protected trees.

How quickly can a house be 3D printed? Rome may not have been built in a day, but a house, or at least the structure of one, can be printed in one. Full completion takes a few weeks as contractors are needed to put in windows and doors and to add a roof.

And why stop at just one house when you could build a whole neighborhood? Plans have been drawn for an entire luxury community in Southern California. Rancho Mirage, located in Coachella Valley, is set to become the location for the country’s first 3D printing produced community. The project’s plans call for 15 eco-friendly homes on 5-acres with completion expected sometime in 2022.

Apparently 3D printers can produce large structures, then, but how? I’m no engineer, but I’d guess some LARGE printers are required. And, of course, I’m right. An office complex in Dubai was produced by a 20′ (that’s FOOT not inches) tall concrete 3D printer with a robotic arm to deposit cement.

Austin-based ICON’s initial 3D printer was 11.5′ tall by 33′ wide (again that’s FEET). The printer’s “ink” is a concrete mix put down in stacked layers from the ground up. ICON’s newest printer is even bigger and also faster. It is 1.5 times the size of the original and can work two times faster. Let’s hope the big printers don’t experience the issues smaller ones do; a concrete jam is likely to be more serious and harder to fix than a paper jam.

Like any development, AM has brought progress which comes at a cost. Having the technology to produce buildings faster, cheaper, and more efficiently is a plus, but drawbacks exist. 3D printing reduces the need for human labor thereby depriving some humans of a job. It also offers the ability to do things such as construct illegal, untraceable ghost guns.

While it would be great to take only the positive aspects of advancement, picking and choosing its consequences is never really is an option. The good and the bad results of progress are a package deal. You may be asked to stick ’em up by a ghost gun wielding robber as you walk towards your quickly produced 3D printed office downtown. But don’t expect to read about the robbery in the paper. Producing newspapers from a printing press is a declining, perhaps even dying, industry.

Just WONDER-ing:

Would you live or work in a 3D printed structure if given the chance? Which is more important, providing housing and schools or preserving construction jobs? How should the accessibility of homemade ghost guns be countered?

Taliban Prohibit Poppy Picking

True to their name, the TaliBAN like to ban things. They won’t allow girls to go to school and now they’ve banned poppy picking as well. While this poppy prohibition may appear random, there is method to the Taliban’s madness; poppies are the source of opium. For various reasons, the current government in Afghanistan has imposed this ban, but the fallout from it spells trouble with a capital “T” for impoverished Afghans. Let’s dig a little deeper into the Taliban’s foray against flowers.

On April 3rd, an Afghani government spokesman (translate Taliban mouthpiece) announced a ban on harvesting poppies. What poor timing! Harvesting of poppies had already begun in southern Kandahar. To the east, Afghani farmers were just beginning to plant their latest poppy crop. But, the Taliban theme song is apparently, “Oh, yes. We’ll have no dread poppies!” And to show they mean business, the government will penalize those who proceed with a harvest by having their crops burned and being thrown in jail. Yikes!

What’s the big deal with a ban on poppy production anyway? Actually, this ban is a HUGE deal. Farmers extract opium from poppies which is required to make heroin, and Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium. The country’s poppy crops accounted for 90% of the global opium trade in 2021, and heroin made from opium produced from Afghani poppies makes up 95% of the European market.

The economic impact of poppy production in Afghanistan is enormous. According to a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan, illicit narcotics are Afghanistan’s largest industry except for war. Poppies are the main source of income for millions of day laborers and small farmers. In 2021 the income from opiates in Afghanistan constituted over 7% of the country’s GDP–that’s Gross Domestic Product for those not conversant in economics acronyms–and is pegged at between $1.8 and $2.7 billion (that’s billion with a “B”).

With the recent takeover by the Taliban, the country is already in economic straits. The recently announced ban on poppy production will merely impoverish the already suffering poorest citizens of Afghanistan. Can’t the farmers simply switch to another crop? Unfortunately, scant incentive exists to do so. Farmers can earn twelve times more income per acre for poppies compared to conventional crops. U.S. and NATO troops attempted to restrain poppy production during their two decades in the country by paying farmers to grow alternate crops such as saffron and wheat. Nevertheless, the industry thrived because said payments simply couldn’t compete with earnings from growing opium poppies.

Interestingly, this recent prohibition on poppy production isn’t the first Taliban ban on the activity. A similar ban was imposed under previous Taliban rule in the late 1990’s. Within two years, poppy production was mostly eradicated; however, the production soared again after the Taliban were ousted in 2001. An all-time high for opium production in Afghanistan was set in 2017 with 9,900 tons yielded worth some $1.4 billion in sales. According to a 2020 U.N. survey, poppies are grown in 22 of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan.

What’s the Taliban’s rationale for banning poppy production? Several factors play into this decision. First, the Taliban are a fundamentalist Islamic group, so religious views about the evils of drug use are front and center. To be fair, the Taliban aren’t simply picking on poppy picking. The government’s order outlawed the manufacture of narcotics as well as the transportation, trade, export, and import of heroin, hashish, and alcohol. Thus, no Afghani can legally hoist a glass of bubbly to toast a successful poppy harvest.

A second factor driving this ban is political concerns. If Kabul wants to interact with the international community, prerequisites exist. A key demand from the big boys such as the U.S. is that the Afghani government take action against drug production in Afghanistan. To receive financial assistance and some form of foreign recognition, the Taliban must take a public stance against this activity.

A third factor spurring the Taliban to prohibit poppy production is media spin. Quite the negative press has been generated by their precluding Afghani girls from receiving an education and from alleged violations of human rights. A war against drugs puts them in a more positive light and diverts attention from the plight of Afghani girls and abused citizens.

A final factor making a ban on the opium trade attractive is its impact on terrorist groups. Poppy production is a large source of revenue for terrorists. Cutting off poppy production cuts such groups off at the knees.

Being in agreement that poppy production should be banned makes the Taliban and the U.S. strange bedfellows. But, let’s get real. The mere fact a ban has been announced does not mean the production will magically go “Poof!” and no longer occur. The economic rewards for raising such a crop are astronomic, luring poor Afghanis to undertake illegal production.

Additionally, poppies have been around since early history and are not simply going to go away because the Taliban has outlawed their production. Poppies played a part in the practices of ancient Egypt. Doctors during that time would have their patients eat poppy seeds to relieve pain.

And let’s be fair to poppies. Not all poppy species are used for drug production. It is only the Papaver somniferum which is the source of the narcotic drug opium. (NOTE: I’m not a botanist, but I can do internet research to dig up impressive scientific plant names.) Somniferum means “sleep-bringing” and refers to the sedative property of opiates. Since Papaver somniferum is too difficult a name for non-botanists to remember, this particular poppy is commonly referred to as the opium poppy.

For enquiring minds who want to know, opium is the dried latex produced by the large seed pods found under the opium poppy’s flower. Incisions are made on the green seed pods, and, once dry, the latex which oozes from these incisions is collected.

The opium poppy is a study in contrast. It produces a substance which can be dangerous and harmful. On the other hand, its flower is beautiful and this poppy is prized as an ornamental plant for gardens. It also produces edible seeds. While I’d be sad to forgo poppy seeds on my bagel and for delicious poppy seed chicken, it would be worth the loss to reduce the scourge of illegal drug use. And I’m pleased there’s on issue on which the U.S. and the Taliban agree.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Does the economic benefit to Afghanis justify allowing the negative consequences of drug use of opium poppy products? Were you aware how integral poppy production is to the economy of Afghanistan? Does a ban on anything ever totally suppress it?

Release of Barrels of Oil More Exciting Than A Barrel of Monkeys

A barrel of oil doesn’t sound that exciting; a barrel of monkeys would be more fun. But with today’s sky-high gasoline prices, consumers may literally be doing cartwheels over the announced release of barrels of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. President Biden isn’t monkeying around in attempting to reduce the cost of gas for Americans. What’s happening and why would a flood of barrels of oil help?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, it now costs an arm and a leg to fill up your gas tank. Gas prices hovered around $4.23/gallon as of March 30th, up from $3.61/gallon in February. Contrast these figures with the cost of gas in March 2021 when, according to the American Automobile Association, gas sold for about $2.86/gallon. Putting gas in your tank lately is not a gas.

The bottom line? Buying gas takes a bigger and bigger bite out of the consumer wallet. In particular, lower-income Americans are likely to spend a larger percentage of their money on gasoline than higher earning Americans. And with higher gas prices come higher food and consumer goods prices transported to their sales point.

The White House blames sticker shock on oil companies. While money bleeds from consumers’ pockets for gas, American oil companies are pocketing their largest profits in years. If oil production was expanded, it would alleviate the higher gas prices. But over 9,000 permits approving drilling on millions of acres of federal land remain unused. No drilling means less oil to make gasoline for filling gas tanks resulting in higher gas prices.

The Biden Administration wants to add huge amounts of oil to the global market to lessen gas price rises. The president will allow to be tapped from our nation’s strategic reserves to mitigate dramatic rises in gas prices across the country. A diplomatic push has also been undertaken to convince other countries to make releases from their oil reserves.

On March 31st, President Biden announced plans to release approximately 1 million barrels of oil per day from U.S. reserves to combat surging gas prices. This draw, which could last up to six months, would be the largest one in our nation’s history. Desperate times call for desperate measures, apparently.

The source for this voluminous draw is the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (“SPR”), a crude petroleum reserve. This reserve is not one single source but rather a federal government complex of four sites in Texas and Louisiana with deep underground storage caverns in salt domes. Bryan Hill Mound in Freeport, TX has 20 caverns; Big Hill in Winnie, TX offers 14 caverns; West Hackberry in Lake Charles, LA contains 22 caverns; and Bayou Choctaw in Baton Rouge, LA has 5 caverns. Each of these locations is near a major center of refining and processing.

Those of us who aren’t geologists (raising my hand in confession) may wonder why petroleum would be stored in salt domes rather than manmade containers such as tanks or barrels. Salt domes are a good storage option because salt is impermeable and has low solubility in crude oil.

The SPR’s current authorized storage capacity is 714 million barrels, making it the largest one in the world. Nevertheless, the SPR isn’t currently full. It held only 568 million barrels as of March 25, 2022 according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In lay terms, let’s just say that there’s a whopping amount of oil in them there salt domes. If all of what Pres. Biden announced for release (some 1 million barrels) is indeed released, approximately one-third of the SPR’s current volume would be tapped.

To envision this vast quantity of crude petroleum, it’s helpful to understand the standard measure–the barrel. One barrel of crude oil equals 42 gallons. This 42 gallon standard for a barrel of oil was officially adopted in 1866 when that was the volume of a standard wooden barrel. But 42 gallons of crude oil does NOT equal 42 gallons of gasoline. With processing, the crude oil in one barrel produces 19 gallons of gasoline.

While it’s great to have a strategic reserve, how is the stored petroleum removed from the salt caverns? Water is pumped into the salt caverns. Since oil and water don’t mix (I at least know that!), the crude floats to the top where it is collected and sent to refineries.

Enquiring minds may also want to know why our country even has this strategic reserve. (I did.) The SPR’s creation resulted from the 1973 Arab oil embargo. The U.S. government felt it prudent to have such a supply to access in the case of an emergency. And we’ve experienced several “emergencies” recently. The latest SPR release announced by Pres. Biden is the third one he’s authorized in just over four months. In November, it was announced 50 million barrels would be drawn, and an additional 30+ barrels were authorized after the invasion of Ukraine.

While the current plan to release a million barrels a day from the SPR seems like a huge infusion of oil, it pales in comparison to the daily usage of oil in this country. In 2021, the United States consumed around 20 million barrels of oil PER DAY. And while the U.S. is a net petroleum exporter, it still imports up to 8.2 million barrels of crude oil DAILY.

With the planned tapping of the SPR, people will be able “fill ‘er up” at a lesser cost if we “draw it down” in the salt caverns. While easing the pain in our pocketbooks is admirable, turning to the SPR isn’t an ultimate solution to energy issues. The petroleum in that reserve, while a huge quantity, is not unlimited. The drawdown merely treats an unpleasant symptom of reliance on fossil fuels. Perhaps the best solution is not to monkey around with barrels no matter what they are full of; greater usage of alternative forms of energy may be the best strategic plan moving forward.

WONDER-ing Woman:

How have soaring gasoline prices affected your budget and activities? Are periodic releases of barrels of oil from the SPR merely a temporary fix to energy issues? Did you have a good understanding of the SPR prior to reading this post?