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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 Nature, Grand 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.