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No. 1160:
Killing People

Today, we reflect on the technologies of killing one another. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We humans are a hardy lot. It usually takes the cellular deterioration of old age to set us up for death -- which is then caused by final assaults of cancer, heart disease, pneumonia. Death by natural causes usually follows a long working-over of our system. Intentional killing becomes a technological issue just because we are hard to kill. It is seldom easy, and it always plays against the universal commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."

At the same time, we find many reasons for killing -- the greater good of society as expressed in war and capital punishment, mercy killing, personal gain (often expressed in crime against another person), revenge, anger, suicide. I expect we've all sanctioned killing for one or more of these reasons at one time or another -- either by our words or by our deeds.

Little original technology has been created to help us kill each other. What we have done is adapt a great deal of our existing technology to that purpose. We've repeatedly made weapons for hunting into weapons of crime or war. Lisa Meitner, whose 1939 paper described the energy release of nuclear fission, clearly thought she'd found the ultimate peacetime power source. Asked what use their new airplane would be, Orville Wright shot back, "Sport." War was far from the Wrights' minds when they invented the airplane, but their first big commercial sale was to the Army. Edison, who was committed to DC power systems, got Sing-Sing prison to build an electric chair so people would know how unsafe AC was.

Complex as atom bombs, rockets, and submarines might be, they were all first conceived as technologies of peace. Finding ways to kill people has been a poor creative outlet for inventors. Instead, people who seek improved means for killing have forged every kind of sword from the plowshares made by creative people.

In one area the question of killing has become hopelessly muddled. Killing requires a massive invasion of a healthy body. But what about a person whose life has been sustained beyond the reach of natural death and who is easy to kill? Denying insulin to a severe diabetic is murder in anyone's eyes, while most of us accept turning off the respirator of a brain-dead person. But so much gray lies in between. It's no surprise that philosophers now teach in many medical schools. Doctors need new tools to cope with the questions their technologies have started to pose.

We engineers are often tempted to isolate delicious puzzles from their implications -- how to make the best bomber or cigarette or inherently dangerous machine. But those puzzles can't be isolated. We might really face situations where killing is the lesser of unavoidable evils, but that shady moral ground is the highest that killing will find. We'd better be focused on the value and quality of lives -- the day we're tested by the puzzle of making the best killing machine.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Nuland, S., How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.