FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Camus in the Time of Drones

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Lucien rises from bed in the early morning. He dresses quietly, careful not to awaken his wife and infant son. He walks briskly across the city of Algiers in the pre-dawn light to a square that is already thick with people, their gaze fixed on a wooden platform and rising from it the stark outline of a guillotine.

The man has come to watch the execution of a notorious killer of an Algerian farm family. The man is curious and wants to see justice done. The prisoner is brought to the scaffold, blindfolded, then trussed to a plank and slid beneath the grim killing machine. The blade drops, severing the head and unleashing a surge of blood from the quivering torso.

The man rushes back across town. He runs all the way to his house, brushes past his wife to the bathroom. He locks the door and vomits, again and again. He will not go to work this day or the next. Instead he lies in bed, tormented by what he has witnessed. He tells his wife what he has seen and refuses to speak of it again for the remainder of his short life.

The man is Lucien Camus, father of Albert. The story was told to Albert by his mother years later and it haunted the writer all his life. The gruesome scene appears in his novels The Stranger and The First Man and became the centerpiece of his masterful essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” perhaps the most forceful denunciation of the death penalty ever written.

Camus’ essay on the barbarity of the death penalty was written in 1956, against the backdrop of the executions of hundreds of dissidents during the Soviet crackdown in Hungary, as well as the execution of Algerian revolutionaries condemned to death by French tribunals. He notes that by 1940 all executions in France and England were shielded from the public. If capital punishment was meant to deter crime, why hold the killings in secret? Why not make them a public spectacle?

Because, Camus argues, deterrence isn’t the purpose of state murder. The real objective is vengeance through the exercise of extreme state power. “Let us recognize it for what it is essentially: a revenge. A punishment that penalizes without forestalling is indeed called revenge. It is a quasi-arithmetical replay made by society to whoever breaks its primordial law.”

Public executions became a threat to the state, because the dreadful act tends to provoke revulsion in ordinary citizens, like Camus’ father, who see it clearly for what it is: a new form of murder “no less repulsive than the crime.” A form of murder that is performed, in theory, in the name of the citizens and for which they are complicit.

This kind of state-sanctioned killing, Camus reasoned, leads only to more murder, a vast panorama of murder. “Without the death penalty,” Camus writes, “Europe would not be infected by the corpses accumulated for the last twenty years on its soil.”

So what would Albert Camus, the great moralist of the 20th century, think about the latest innovation in administrative murder, Obama’s drone program, a kind of remote-control gallows, where the killers never see their victims, never hear their screams, smell their burning bodies, touch their mutilated flesh?

The conscience of the killer has been sterilized, the drone operator, fully alienated from the act he is committing, can walk out the door after his shift is over and calmly order an IPA at the local microbrew or play a round of golf under the desert sky. He is left with no blood on his hands, no savagery weighing on his conscience, no degrading images to stalk his dreams.

Drone strikes, Camus would argue, are not just meant to kill. They are programmed to terrorize. In this regard, whether the missile strikes its intended target or incinerates a goat-herder and his flock is incidental. In fact, the occasional killing of civilians may well be a desired outcome since collateral deaths intensify the fear. This is punishment by example, not for any particular crime or impending threat, but merely because of who you are, where you live, what you might believe. These new circuitries of death are meant to humiliate, subdue and dehumanize.

As more and more evidence of Obama’s secret killing operations in Pakistan and Yemen began to leak out, public squeamishness over the deaths, especially of civilians and targeted American citizens, began to mount. Uncomfortable questions were raised, even on the political right. To salvage his program, Obama announced that new guidelines would soon be imposed on his high-tech assassinations.

But Camus would be the first to warn us that such regulations should be viewed with grave suspicion, since they will likely only serve to legitimize and normalize state murder, by making lawless killing legal.

Camus stresses that in the long run such killing regimes can only sustain themselves if they are indulged by a nation’s elites: its press, its intellectuals, its political movements. And here we must confront the torpid moral character of the American left, which has been flaccid in the face of the drone killings, insensate to the mangled bodies, suffering and fragmented lives on the far side of the world.

Our task is to shatter this indifference, to condemn and resist the killing done in our names, to reassert the primacy of individual life over state authority. Otherwise, we become accomplices of the long-distance executioners.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.   He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 29, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary and the Clinton Foundation: Exemplars of America’s Political Rot
Patrick Timmons
Dildos on Campus, Gun in the Library: the New York Times and the Texas Gun War
Jack Rasmus
Bernie Sanders ‘OR’ Revolution: a Statement or a Question?
Richard Moser
Strategic Choreography and Inside/Outside Organizers
Nigel Clarke
President Obama’s “Now Watch This Drive” Moment
Robert Fisk
Iraq’s Willing Executioners
Wahid Azal
The Banality of Evil and the Ivory Tower Masterminds of the 1953 Coup d’Etat in Iran
Farzana Versey
Romancing the Activist
Frances Madeson
Meet the Geronimos: Apache Leader’s Descendants Talk About Living With the Legacy
Nauman Sadiq
The War on Terror and the Carter Doctrine
Lawrence Wittner
Does the Democratic Party Have a Progressive Platform–and Does It Matter?
Marjorie Cohn
Death to the Death Penalty in California
Winslow Myers
Asking the Right Questions
Rivera Sun
The Sane Candidate: Which Representatives Will End the Endless Wars?
Linn Washington Jr.
Philadelphia District Attorney Hammered for Hypocrisy
Binoy Kampmark
Banning Burkinis: the Politics of Beachwear
Weekend Edition
August 26, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Louisa Willcox
The Unbearable Killing of Yellowstone’s Grizzlies: 2015 Shatters Records for Bear Deaths
Paul Buhle
In the Shadow of the CIA: Liberalism’s Big Embarrassing Moment
Rob Urie
Crisis and Opportunity
Charles Pierson
Wedding Crashers Who Kill
Richard Moser
What is the Inside/Outside Strategy?
Dirk Bezemer – Michael Hudson
Finance is Not the Economy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Bernie’s Used Cars
Margaret Kimberley
Hillary and Colin: the War Criminal Charade
Patrick Cockburn
Turkey’s Foray into Syria: a Gamble in a Very Dangerous Game
Ishmael Reed
Birther Tries to Flim Flam Blacks  
Brian Terrell
What Makes a Hate Group?
Andrew Levine
How Donald Trump Can Still be a Hero: Force the Guardians of the Duopoly to Open Up the Debates
Howard Lisnoff
Trouble in Political Paradise
Terry Tempest Williams
Will Our National Parks Survive the Next 100 Years?
Ben Debney
The Swimsuit that Overthrew the State
Ashley Smith
Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution
Andrew Stewart
Did Gore Throw the 2000 Election?
Vincent Navarro
Is the Nation State and Its Welfare State Dead? a Critique of Varoufakis
John Wight
Syria’s Kurds and the Wages of Treachery
Lawrence Davidson
The New Anti-Semitism: the Case of Joy Karega
Mateo Pimentel
The Affordable Care Act: A Litmus Test for American Capitalism?
Roger Annis
In Northern Syria, Turkey Opens New Front in its War Against the Kurds
David Swanson
ABC Shifts Blame from US Wars to Doctors Without Borders
Norman Pollack
American Exceptionalism: A Pernicious Doctrine
Ralph Nader
Readers Think, Thinkers Read
Julia Morris
The Mythologies of the Nauruan Refugee Nation
George Wuerthner
Caving to Ranchers: the Misguided Decision to Kill the Profanity Wolf Pack
Ann Garrison
Unworthy Victims: Houthis and Hutus
Julian Vigo
Britain’s Slavery Legacy
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail