(8 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)
Originally published in Free Inquiry
Every society has the criminals it deserves.
-Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine”
My sister must have been terrified the night that her junkie boyfriend beat her to death in that filthy motel room. Terrified and disoriented, she would have been struggling to understand what was happening to her. Beating a human being to death is apparently not an easy thing to do. According to the coroner’s testimony, it took about five minutes for her to die. What was she thinking, in those five minutes? At what point in that five-minute period did she suspect she might die in that squalid room? At what point did she know she would die there and then?
I would lay awake at night, for months after her death, unable to turn off the endless broken loop playing in my brain that kept repeating these questions. More than answers, I wanted revenge: hard, bloody-fisted revenge, bitter and uncompromising Old Testament revenge. More, I wanted to stand before those in power, point my finger at all the world’s death rows, and scream at the top of my lungs, “Kill them all, and let God sort them out!” I was slowly going mad with my ache for revenge.
But-but-revenge is not justice.
During the worst of my dark night of the soul, I came across an old friend whom I had not thought about in years, even decades: Albert Camus. I found myself rereading his seminal essay, “Reflections on the Guillotine” (found in the closeout bin of a used bookstore). I read that tired, used, old paperback copy until it literally fell apart in my hands. Camus’ demand that one must apply one’s reason to the question of “administrative murder” finally penetrated my grief and my hate. Despite how I felt-indeed, because of how I felt-I am compelled to stand against the death penalty. It is important to discuss why. One has the image of Camus as a tough, Bogartesque, amoral existentialist, largely on the basis of his fiction, most especially The Stranger. However, Camus’ thought was driven from a deep moral center. In many ways, we might look at Camus as our last great moralist, and the one who was arguably most successful in deploying a humanist morality from an atheistic ground.
Camus had his own moment of truth with the question of administrative murder when his father returned from witnessing his first execution by guillotine, an event the elder Camus had been eagerly anticipating. He came home trembling and as pale as the grave. He vomited, then fell on his bed shaking, then vomited some more. It took him days to recover from the experience. He refused to ever speak of what he had seen and heard. Camus, who adored his father, knew from that moment that the question of administrative murder was one that would become one of the basic issues of his life. Camus would eventually evolve a set of rational arguments that, in their cumulative effect, would strip away any and all pretexts for state-sanctioned execution and reveal it for what it was: primitive, atavistic, an exemplar of all that is low in the human spirit. Given the renewed enthusiasm for the execution of criminals in recent years here in the United States, perhaps it is time to dust off Camus’ plain and uncompromising analysis and deploy it against the current situation.
The Great Euphemism
“No one dares speak directly of the ceremony. Officials and journalists, who have to talk about it, as if they were aware of both its provocative and its shameful aspects, have made up a sort of ritual language, reduced to stereotyped phrases. Hence we read at breakfast that the condemned has ‘paid his debt to society’ or that has ‘atoned’ or that ‘at five am justice was done.'”*
Capital punishment is contrary to all international human-rights codes, and the United States is the only Western liberal democracy still practicing this curiously archaic and tribal custom. The United States kills more of its own citizens in the name of justice than any other country in the world, with the exceptions of China and Iran. Additionally, the United States is the only country that continues openly and explicitly to execute children. Yet, the United States is still wrestling, for the most part, with the aesthetics of capital punishment. For nearly two centuries, the United States has struggled to reconcile its affection for the death penalty with its image of itself as a just and humane society. In other words, it has been fundamentally engaged in an aesthetic struggle. One bizarre example drags this focus into the light. The State of Texas recently stopped posting the details of executed prisoners’ last meals on its Web site, because “we had some complaints from people . . . that it might be in poor taste to distribute that information on the Web site.”
Something like this virtually cries out for a satirical treatment, yet it is very telling. The act itself is never seen as problematic, yet the sad personal detail of what a human being chose to eat right before the state murdered him is hidden because to do otherwise would be in “poor taste.”
In the nineteenth century, America had grown to dislike hanging, the usual method of executing condemned prisoners. Hangings often took place in public, frequently leading to riots and other “untidy” behavior among spectators. Hangings also were often botched, resulting in slow strangulation or decapitation. Opponents of the death penalty gained adherents by arguing that hanging was cruel and barbaric. To rehabilitate the aesthetics of administrative murder, supporters of the death penalty came up with the idea of electrocution. After that, death by injection. Always, rather than give up the addiction of putting people to death, the United States simply struggled for more and more “humane” methods for killing a human being. More and more euphemistic ways to describe the act were employed, resulting in an almost drugged state among the citizens, so that “words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man” (p. 133).
Let us speak plainly. It is imperative that we say what this thing really is, and, having done so, whether it is justifiable or necessary. For Camus, “there is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak” (p. 133). If everyone involved in the act of administrative murder were to simply speak plainly, Camus felt, the executions would stop right then and there: “It would become harder to execute men one after another, as is done in our country today, if those executions were translated into vivid images in the popular imagination. The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail” (p. 141). The citizens of the United States must do away with euphemism and weasel-words. If they want to keep killing their fellow human beings, then they must face it, look at it, watch it, see it happen. They must breathe in the smell of it. They must call it what it is. Then, and only then, will they be able to think about whether they have the stomach for it.
Exhibit the Heads
The United States has worked very hard over the years to make administrative murder a “kinder, gentler” process, while simultaneously developing techniques and infrastructure to push the process farther and farther from the public view. One wonders why this is done, if (as proponents of capital punishment argue) “the great argument of those who defend capital punishment is the exemplary value of the punishment. Heads are cut off not only to punish but to intimidate, by a frightening example, any who might be tempted to imitate the guilty” (p. 135).
It is difficult to intimidate and educate other potential violators if one refuses to “exhibit the heads.” Without the gore, the blood, the sheer horrific spectacle of the thing, the only purpose that administrative murder might serve is as a sort of abstract notification, “periodically informing the citizens that they will die if they happen to kill” (p. 136). Camus points out the obvious fact that an exemplary factor, in order to be effective, assumes a model of human nature not currently in evidence. “According to a magistrate, the vast majority of the murderers he had known did not know when shaving in the morning that they were going to kill later in the day” (p. 140). If a person kills, as is usually the case, in a flash of frenzy, anger, or obsession, the assumption of a quiet, solid attitude of reflection towards the imminent killing on the part of the imminent killer is, quite literally, absurd. “For capital punishment to be really intimidating, human nature would have to be different: it would have to be as stable and serene as the law itself” (p. 144). This leaves us with no choice but to conclude that, from an exemplary point of view, execution “is powerless in the majority of cases.”
If the United States truly believed in the exemplary value of administrative murder, it “would give executions the benefit of the publicity it generally uses for national bond issues or new brands of drinks” (p. 135). Or the sort of manic, triumphal publicity given to professional wrestling or NASCAR racing. One suspects that the hiding of the act, when combined with the claims of exemplary value, helps us to uncover a fleeting whiff of the stench of bad faith. “A law is applied without being thought out and the condemned die in the name of a theory in which the executioners do not believe” (p. 135).
The United States is, at heart, a country besotted with religion. Religious discourse and imagery infest every corner of the public space. Nowhere is this more apparent than in U.S. attitudes towards administrative murder. For those who believe that administrative murder has value, no rationale for the practice resonates deeper than “an eye for an eye.” In the current weepy pop-psychology milieu, one may choose to wrap this Mosaic desire in phrases like “we desire closure,” but the impulse and the aim remain the same. This law-religious in its heart-is “as old as man; it is called the law of retaliation. Whoever has done me harm must suffer harm; whoever has put out my eye must lose an eye; and whoever has killed must die. This is an emotion, and a particularly violent one, not a principle. Retaliation is related to nature and instinct, not to law. Law, by definition, cannot obey the same rules as nature” (p. 150).
Here we run into a very thorny problem, because the ache for retaliation, the deep need to kill to repay a killing, has proven uniquely resistant to being overthrown by rational discourse. But we must look at its face and realize that administrative murder, as currently practiced in the United States, is more than an eye for an eye, much more. “It adds to the death a rule, a public premeditation known to the future victim, an organization, in short, which is in itself a source of moral sufferings more terrible than death. Hence there is no equivalence” (p. 151).
In order for there to be anything resembling “equivalence” between the first murder (committed by the criminal) and the second murder (committed by the state), the criminal would need to have been a very horrible individual. It would be necessary for him to have warned his victim of the date when he, the criminal, would inflict a horrible death on the victim. Then, keeping the victim confined for a very long time, the criminal would occasionally, and seemingly at random, change the date for the rendezvous, while always reminding the horrified victim that the rendezvous was nonetheless inevitable. Finally, after playing this sadistic game for years-often for decades-the criminal would march the cowed and despairing victim to a special room, where the criminal would commit the murder. “Such a monster is not encountered in private life” (p. 152). But this monster is encountered routinely in public life. It is called the state, in its role as torturer, tormenter, and executioner. And it is, perhaps, this utter denial of the important role that freedom plays-must play, of necessity-in every human life that is the worst aspect of this long, drawn-out torture. “The Greeks, after all, were more humane with their hemlock. They left their condemned a relative freedom, the possibility of putting off or hastening the hour of his death” (p. 154). Those Greeks, in so many ways, were so fundamentally different and so much better than our Western Judeo-Christian framework of guilt and punishment.
To Err Is Human, All-too Human
Right in my own back yard in North Carolina, a man imprisoned for eighteen years in the murder of a newspaper copy editor was released from prison in December 2003, two days after another man was charged based on DNA evidence. Luckily, he was serving a life sentence rather than having been condemned to death. “Once the innocent man is dead, no one can do anything for him . . .” (p. 163).
Since 1973, 111 people awaiting execution on death row have been released because they were actually innocent. That means 111 people could have been wrongly murdered on our behalf. How many of the nearly nine hundred executed during these years have been innocent? “The jurist Olivecroix, applying the law of probability to the chance of judicial error, around 1860, concluded that perhaps one innocent man was condemned in every two hundred and fifty seven cases” (p. 162).
Whether you work with the French jurist’s mathematical calculations or the even higher numbers that the 111 innocents freed by DNA evidence suggest, the sickening prospect of significant numbers of innocent human beings being subjected to administrative murder must be sobering to any human being with an imagination. Any serious attempt to justify administrative murder will have to reckon with this simple fact: innocent human beings will wind up being put to death. Inevitably. It cannot be avoided.
There is nothing preventing the state from choosing any other penalty, no matter how harsh, that still manages to leave the condemned alive just in case-just in case-it is discovered in the future that the condemned was, in fact, as innocent as he or she claimed to be. “Capital punishment would then be replaced by hard labor-for life in the case of criminals considered irremediable and for a fixed period in the case of the others” (p. 178). In other words, there would be precisely the model that has been deployed in the civilized world.
The Dirty Sacrament
The United States, despite its insistent claims that it believes in the separation of church and state, is, at heart, a quasi-religious state. “The supreme punishment has always been, throughout the ages, a religious penalty” (p. 170). The executioner is fulfilling some sort of tainted sacral role, deploying administrative murder as a sacrament that is, perversely, intended to somehow save the condemned. While the condemned can be assumed to see things differently, the State believes at heart that administrative murder “destroys the body in order to deliver the soul to the divine sentence” (p. 171).
Beyond the desire to offer the soul of the condemned up to some higher power (a rather ghoulish, atavistic action, if one thinks about it), there is always the hope that the condemned will repent at the last, therefore somehow redeeming his or her soul by showing penitence and remorse in the death chamber. It is part of the dance, the media recording and distributing the last words, the attitude and deportment of the condemned. It is most important that the condemned express remorse and ask the family of the victim for forgiveness. It is important, on a visceral level, that both of these ritualistic elements are satisfied. Otherwise the state and its citizenry somehow fail to achieve “closure.” The state and its citizens are otherwise “cheated.” Being a religious ritual, there is really no requirement that any of the ritual practices be sincere: “conversion through fire or the guillotine will always be suspect, and it may seem surprising that the Church has not given up conquering infidels through terror” (p. 173).
Given this ritualistic and blatantly religious aspect to administrative murder, we really have to ask ourselves: do we want to ground judicial policy on the basis of religious faith? Is there really, essentially, any difference between the Mosaic ritual of administrative murder in the United States and the ritualistic beheadings of adulteresses in Saudi Arabia? I have tried burrowing down to first principles in both these rituals, and am unable to find any significant difference.
Our Heart of Darkness
“Bloodthirsty laws, it has been said, make bloodthirsty customs” (p. 174). Nothing demonstrates this truth more than administrative murder. It must be resisted for the reasons we have discussed-these reasons and one more, one perhaps not obvious but, in my view, of paramount importance.
We do not resist capital punishment for any of the obvious reasons. We do not resist capital punishment because it is “cruel and unusual.” Indeed, if a society is going to deploy capital punishment, that society should try to make it as cruel as possible. Show us the heads. Is the United States an empire? Then let that empire be Roman-nailing a human being to a cross and leaving him or her there to die over the course of several days is a wonderful way to get the attention of the empire’s citizens. We do not resist capital punishment because of some empathy for the criminal as a fellow human being. Like Camus, “I am far from indulging in the flabby pity characteristic of humanitarians” (p. 131). If the criminal is in fact guilty (an often problematic assumption, as we’ve seen), then the criminal is undeserving of empathy and is deserving of punishment. That punishment may not, however, extend to death.
We do not resist capital punishment because of any notion that a just and loving God wants us to. I approach this whole premise from the perspective of a humanist and an atheist- which is to say, I consider such a notion absurd. If one cannot use the appeal to God to justify the death penalty, then one cannot use the appeal to God to resist the death penalty.
Ultimately, our one abiding reason not to inflict death upon other human beings is that it is degrading to all involved: all become less human. Not just the criminal, and not just the executioner. All of us.
Camus understood what we might term the American “heart of darkness” and discusses it in a passage that is worth quoting at length: “The remarks of one of our assistant executioners on one of his journeys to the provinces: ‘When we would start on a trip, it was always a lark, with taxis and the best restaurants part of the spree!’ The same one says, boasting of the executioner’s skill in releasing the blade: ‘You could allow yourself the fun of pulling the client’s hair.’ The dissoluteness expressed here has other, deeper aspects. The clothing of the condemned belongs in principle to the executioner. The elder Deibler used to hang all such articles of clothing in a shed and now and then would go and look at them. But there are more serious aspects. Here is what our assistant executioner declares: ‘The new executioner is batty about the guillotine. He sometimes spends days on end at home sitting on a chair, ready with hat and coat on, waiting for a summons from the Ministry'” (p. 149).
The crime of administrative murder “produces one sure effect-to depreciate or to destroy all humanity and reason in those who take part in it directly. But, it will be said, these are exceptional creatures who find a vocation in such dishonor. They seem less exceptional when we learn that hundreds of persons offer to serve as executioners without pay.”
So, even if we have no regard for what it does to the criminal, and even if we have no regard for what it does to the executioner, we must, at the end of the day, have a purely self-interested regard for what it does to our society, to us. “The death penalty besmirches our society, and its upholders cannot reasonably defend it” (p. 179).
The ordinary United States citizen who wrote a letter to the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune upon the execution of Gary Gilmore, understood the real danger of looking into that abyss within us: “Had we but the judgment to see, we would have recognized that the issue of the State of Utah v. Gilmore was not, most significantly, the issue of the fate of Gilmore; it was a question of the fate of the rest of us, and a question of our condition of moral awareness and intelligence.”
Even in a period when the fallibility of the death penalty has been repeatedly exposed, roughly two out of three Americans still support it. In Texas, current United States president George W. Bush personally supervised the executions of 152 people-and he is proud of that fact. That the blood of this slow-motion massacre on the president’s hands is a political asset says everything about current U.S. values. As the civilized world goes in one direction on this question, the United States goes in another. Proudly. If the whole, long, desperate struggle of rational thought is to have any meaning, then I must renounce my all-too-human craving for revenge and blood. We all must.