Those who debate the pros and cons of capital punishment ought to be familiar with Albert Camus’ essay “Reflections on the Guillotine” (1957), in which he argues, following De Sade, that licensing a government to commit premeditated murder is a grievous misuse of power. Maybe today this argument would be lost on Americans who relish the vigor with which our government has executed in battle tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis and other declared foes of American imperialism, and at a time when our military is committed to long-term lethal action around the world.
But Camus’ rejection of CapPun still bears on our moral selves, even after we have substituted for the brutal guillotine the sterile injection of lethal agents to kill a convict. The late Troy Davis is just the latest of a long line of death-row inmates whose legal efforts failed to save his life despite serious questions about his guilt or innocence. As Camus points out, it’s better to sentence a murderer to life at hard labor than to kill him in the event that evidence of innocence later emerges.
The U.S. is the only western-style democracy that still uses CapPun, France having joined the rest of death penalty-free Europe by abolishing it 1981. The Old Testament call for vengeance continues to motivate a majority of citizens in such states as Georgia, where Davis died on Sept. 21st, and Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry has signed off on more executions than any other governor in history. Only 13 states have banned CapPun. The old argument that it deters murder has neither statistical support, as Camus argued about 50 years ago, nor suasive value in a nation where murder continues to be a daily occurrence and many survivors demand a life for a life.
I personally feel disgust at the way the wheels of so-called justice, sanctioned at the highest level by the Supreme Court, inexorably produce justification for the state’s administrative will to commit premeditated murder in claustral chambers where sanitized technicians of death operate like corrupt doctors in surgical garb, latex gloves, and masks, wielding hypodermic needles to snuff out the life of another human being, whether the most heinous murderer or the possibly innocent, like Troy Davis.