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The Death Penalty

12.31.2006

I cant say I have ever been madly disposed to the death penalty, and for me the execution of Saddam represents the most extreme test of the logic of those for and against it. It should transcend the issues which divide people on the Iraq war itself, it goes beyond the questions of legality, ethics, foreign policy and any other angle that people take on the war itself.

Those are big questions, agreed, but the idea behind the death penalty is, at heart, far more important. It occurs to me that within the death penalty, we have the general capacity to wage war made particular. As a polity, we are generally seen as conferring on our states the right to wage war in our defence, as far as non-democratic regimes are concerned the lines of authority are quite short and the right to wage war is quite liberally engaged irrespective of the considerations of the wider population. So far nothing new.

Consider for a moment though, that in effect the state is given the right to kill as many (or, less often, as little) people as it sees fit in order to achieve its (or our) aims. The relationship however between the killing within the war and the legitimation that is notionally conferred on such wars is often quite blurry. Rarely are we confronted by the lost life, the relatives of the dead or the people who live through the dreadful reality of warfare (and that includes soldiers, press and officers).

The state's capacity to dispense death in a war is so broad, so general, that our legitimation of its acts rarely impacts upon us as an act we have sanctioned. Rather it comes to be seen as an inevitable act, in which we merely have observer status. There are surely deep psychological tomes on whether this is a necessary response to the gruesome reality of death or, perhaps more likely, the accurate grasp of reality.

The core point remains however that the right to wage war passes from the multitude to the elite in such a fashion that the multitude feel almost no involvement in decisions resulting in war and death. The diversity of casualties and the gravity of war makes it the most contentious thing a democracy can consider engaging in. Yet at the same time it is wrapped in concepts so abstract and practices so general that the translation between the field of battle (be it a city, plain or village) and the people can often break down. The whole thing is simply too big.

Yet in the death penalty, the difficulty which surrounds the whole notion of war is neatly transcended thanks to a number of key issues. Foremost among them is the fact that only one is intended to die. In this we now put a face on that which we are allowing the state to destroy. It is impossible to "know" Iraq in any personal sense, it is an entity comprised of a network of people, acts, institutions, cultures etc, yet we may know Saddam. (At this point I want to make clear I'm not defending him, just exploring the issue)

Here is where we employ all of the ideas of 'other-ness' and empathy for which human nature is so rightly famed. Within this situation we have distilled the states right to wage death away from the general, unknowable realm of complex entities such as nation-states, to a person. We are not here dealing with the issue of bombing a whole country but of putting a person to death and for that it is almost as powerful an idea.

The one who stands before an executioner faces a states power as much as the person caught in a missile attack. It has been decided that today is their day to die and it is has notionally been our function to sanction this. We have done so broadly, committing to the idea. In the case of war it is rare that the idea becomes flesh to any full extent. There are snatches of personality, snatches of stories but almost as a rule, war remains abstract and general. It is discussed in general terms with general words and the rare penetration of personhood.

The complete opposite is the case in the death penalty. The state has the power to institute death, that much is the same, yet the one who dies is the specific. The particular. The idea of sanctioning death has been brought before us in the flesh and blood of the one who will die.

We do not spend every waking minute thinking of how right it is for a state to kill, yet at any given moment there is likely to be a war somewhere (and you can be guaranteed that the majority of people living there don't want it). The death penalty has that capacity to slam full force into our consciousness like no other issue. It has the power to make us ask, how and why we allow the state a right to kill.

While it is a stretch to begin to extrapolate from an aversion to the death penalty to an aversion to war, one must consider the value to a government of the consistent right to kill in general and particular. A state will reserve the right to be consistent so as to make the jump from killing one to killing many all the more easier. Societies 'softened' by post-war social-liberalism are likely to be squeamish about the paradox of sanctioning general killing while banning particular killing. Perhaps it is one reason why the US views Europe as unreliable in these matters.

The death penalty has the power to distil all of the elements which are present in war-making into a manageable scenario for humans. In this it is exceptional and instructive. It makes us think whether we will sanction this particular death, whether it is in agreement with our moral, social or religious principles but it also sets a precedent upon which a drive to war draws.

I had hoped to arrive at a conclusion somewhere about here, however all I can do is think that perhaps the death penalty is a necessity if a society is to go to war, the logical consistency makes the whole process easier. The whole idea of the death penalty though, I find abhorrent.

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  1. Anonymous Adam | 2:05 p.m. |  

    Very interesting post and well put.
    That said, while I agree that the death penalty personalises state-sanctioned murder I do think that a state can go to war and stay opposed to the death penalty without being hypocritical.
    War is a tool that, in my mind, should be used in the most extreme of situations. It should never be used in aggression, but in defence. It should only be used when there is no other route to take and it is the only way to possibly secure the safety of the nation making the decision (that's a bit of a lose definiton, but hopefully you get my point).
    The death penalty is not carried out in the name of state safety or security, it is carried out as a retrospective response to wrong-doing. There are other options and routes the state can take that would be just as effective (if the desired effect is to bring justice), and in my opinion the death penalty is never the way to punish someone who has done wrong.-----

  2. Blogger Cian | 4:23 a.m. |  

    well put response adam, but i think that war on the above criteria would almost never occur. War is often painted as the last resort when it is in fact the most opportune.

    My point is perhaps that there is a relationship between the two not so much what it is. I havent read on this it just occured to me that once can pave the way for the other. It seems to stand up to investigation of narratives anyhow.

  3. Anonymous Adam | 3:55 p.m. |  

    True, war is rarely taken as a last resort in the modern age and countries like Britain are hypocritical for being anti-death penalty and yet so willing to go to war without justification.

    I suppose I was speaking ideally and, in the case of Ireland for example, our soldiers might be forced to kill on a UN peace keeping force (or in the new EU battle groups) but only as a last resort to avoid a greater evil... it's still state sanctioned but the State's opposition to the death penalty remains reasonable too.

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