Revisiting Camus oncapital punishment
Posted: 09 May 2008 02:41 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Now that the Supremes have cleared the decks to begin the nasty business of administrative murder again, I went back
and re-read an essay I’d put together a couple of years ago. I think it’s held up well.  Originally published here by the
Council for Secular Humanism.

I’d be interested in y’all’s opinions.


Small preview:

“Every society has the criminals it deserves.”

Camus, ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’
My sister would have been terrified, the night 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 who I had not thought about in years, decades: Albert Camus. I found myself re-reading 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 feel – indeed, because of how I feel – I am compelled to stand against the death penalty. It is important to discuss why.

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Posted: 10 May 2008 12:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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...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.

This, I think, is the crux of the matter.  People who support the death penalty want to eat their cake and have it too.  They want to execute people - humanely.  They want to execute all the guilty - but none of the innocent.  They want to be a civilized society - that kills its own citizens.  They want to rationalize executing people - with aesthetics.

So long as the arguments are aesthetic (and thus psychological) and not rational, the death penalty will remain.  The same is true of gun laws and the gun culture - it is not a matter of a rationality, but of psychology and aesthetics.  The same is true of drug policy, race issues - just about any issue where you can see progressives of some kind in conflict with the right wing.  The attitude of the right wing from neocon elites to the NASCAR lumpenproletaiat, though all have their own specific reasons and interests, is one of priggish censors.  The problem for them is not the real thing and its real effects in the real world, but the way in which it fits into their fictional view of the world and how they want the world to be.

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