Politics & Policy

Kafka and the Guillotine

In the hands of our bureaucracy, execution becomes arbitrary, dehumanizing, time-consuming.

You had one job, executioners

As Mike Hashimoto of the Dallas Morning News points out, it is difficult to feel very much sympathy for the men who killed 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman — who was abducted, tortured, shot twice, and buried alive by a crew of goons attempting to collect a debt from a third party, three men who took the time to rape one of Ms. Neiman’s friends along the way. One of those men, Clayton Lockett, died what certainly seems to have been a fairly horrible death as the result of a botched attempt at lethal injection. If the English language has a precise word for the unintended death of a man that occurs while one is trying to kill him, I do not know what it is. Strange to say, the closest description I can think of is “negligent homicide,” which surely can’t be quite right in this case.

Government is, in Max Weber’s famous formulation, a regional monopoly on violence. The word “violence” has connotations of malice, but George Washington had it right: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force.” And, certain platitudes notwithstanding, there is a time for violence: It was not the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves, but General Sherman. It was not reason that defeated Hitler nor eloquence that keeps us safe in our beds at night. As Jonah Goldberg puts it, it isn’t the law that keeps the peace — it’s the sheriff that keeps the peace. The modern Western theory of the state is based in the pessimism of Thomas Hobbes, alongside whom Niccolò Machiavelli sounds like Norman Vincent Peale, and it holds that the sovereign must be invested with the exclusive right to commit violence, the alternative to that being general violence, bellum omnium contra omnes. Regardless of one’s opinion about capital punishment — and men such as Mr. Lockett make it something close to impossible for a less than saintly man to maintain a sincerely consistent opposition — there is nearly universal consensus in the Western world that if any person or entity in society is to have such power, then it should be the exclusive license of the state. At its most fundamental level, the purpose of the state is identical to the purpose of its characteristic tool, the military: to kill people, to destroy the things people make, and to take prisoners.

But as the horrific scene in the death house in McAlester, Okla., shows, government is not even particularly good at its most basic task. Never mind building a simple e-commerce site to facilitate the sale of health insurance, 222 years after the first use of the guillotine in France we’re getting worse at carrying out executions rather than better. Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, the highwayman whose neck was the terminus of the guillotine’s maiden voyage, had it easier than did Mr. Lockett. The adoption of the guillotine was very much a political gesture: The French reformer Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin — who did not, despite the eponym, invent the guillotine — proposed a number of measures to the revolutionary assembly, intended to make killing citizens a more democratic undertaking. The use of the sword for beheadings was seen as an unseemly holdover from the habits of aristocracy, and the principles of the time required that there be no discrimination by class or rank among the victims of the Revolution. The idea of state as machine precedes Maximilien de Robespierre et al. by many generations, but there has never been another machine that so perfectly expressed the plain facts about the state employing it.

The guillotine was enthusiastically welcomed by Charles-Henri Sanson, who was employed in his family’s dynastic occupation, serving as the royal executioner in both possible senses of that phrase. After ensuring that Louis XVI would have no place to set a crown, he continued his occupation as high executioner under the Revolution. His hobbies including playing the violin and dissecting his victims, and his argument for adopting the new machine would have given a less bloodthirsty regime some cause for meditation: He predicted that the rolling headcount was about to increase dramatically, and that the traditional tools of the trade, to say nothing of his own shoulders, were not up to the future labors of French democracy. He himself performed nearly 3,000 executions and oversaw many more, including his journeyman son’s professional triumph in the matter of Marie Antoinette. The guillotine continued to be used until 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi became the last man to be executed in France by any method. Mr. Djandoubi, a Tunisia-born Marseille pimp with a wooden leg (his own having been lost in a landscaping accident), seemed to be a man fated for another kind of amputation. He strangled a woman to death and went to his reward, and a short time later the Mitterrand government abolished capital punishment, sending chief executioner Marcel Chevalier into retirement after only two jobs as the boss. M. Chevalier went to work as a letterpress operator, another moribund profession.

The fiasco in Oklahoma suggests that maybe we took a wrong turn back in 1792. If we are to have capital punishment, there is something to be said for the old-fashioned methods. The sword is indeed too aristocratic for a republic such as France’s or our own, and our already over-titled public sector does not need a High Executioner. But there is something to be said for the sword, and for the high executioner. Execution is a job for a man, not a machine. The power to take a life is profound, and it must be undertaken with the highest degree of sobriety and responsibility. The intimacy of the sword in the hands of the executioner communicates that power and responsibility much more directly than our own relatively bloodless bureaucracy of death ever could. The plodding American mode of bureaucracy if anything subtracts from the profundity of an execution, being organized around a principle of dehumanization that in a sense makes the actual taking of life anticlimactic, almost — but only almost — beside the point. In truth, the unique terrors of the American practice of capital punishment are, the occasional botched job to one side, mainly bureaucratic: the endless legal proceedings, the apparently arbitrary imposition of the capital sanction, the strange little rituals we maintain to give a manageable shape to the horror. Though no one can say so with any authority, it seems to me that the last five minutes of the condemned man’s life must be something of a relief compared with the last five weeks of it or the last five hours — the last meal, the last sunrise and sunset (probably unseen), the long walk down the hall, the restraints, the connection to the sterile machinery. It is not surprising that the condemned occasionally complain that they wish that the state would just get on with it.

Arbitrary, dehumanizing, time-consuming: The terrors of an American execution are a great deal like other encounters with American government, with the obvious exception of how it ends.

Except when that’s not an exception.

When police were called to a home in Boiling Spring Lakes, N.C., by parents seeking assistance in getting their mentally ill teen-aged son to the hospital for emergency treatment, two officers arrived and began attempting to calm down the agitated young man until a third officer, apparently an impatient one, showed up and ordered them to use their Tasers on the 100-pound teen, who was holding a screwdriver. Unsurprisingly, the tasing did not calm down the young man, who, according to his parents, was suffering from schizophrenia and had failed to take his medication. So he was shot to death by a police officer whose last words before pulling the trigger were: “We don’t have time for this.”

When I imagine the police officer in question, I don’t hear the voice of Dirty Harry — I hear the DMV lady and the clerks at the local IRS office, bloodless, officious little bureaucrats to whom the people they encounter every day are not citizens to be served but objects of contempt and problems to be endured until retirement, as though humanity stopped at the edge of the counter. The bureaucrats do not have life-and-death power over us in most cases, but when they do, they can be counted upon to misuse and abuse that power. The feckless authorities in Oklahoma and the time-pressed police of North Carolina are not very much like the executioners of the Terror or the monsters from our nightmares. They are not the muses of Goya, but of Kafka.

All in all, I prefer M. Sanson.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


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