Does the Death Penalty Trivialise War?

It was at his 2004 State of the Union Address – in the midst of an ongoing hunt for those pesky WMDs – that George Bush declared:

I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all. They view terrorism more as a crime – a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments. After the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, some of the guilty were indicted, tried, convicted, and sent to prison. But the matter was not settled. The terrorists were still training and plotting in other nations, and drawing up more ambitious plans. After the chaos and carnage of September 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States – and war is what they got.

Exaggerated – and I trepidly suggest fictitious – claims of a link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam aside, the language here is telling. “Justice” has always been the most obvious choice of populist rhetoric; its ambiguities are concealed by the universally agreeable passion it provokes. Central to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of a just war was its “just cause”: as soon as justice is given common definition both in statute and in the popular worldview then so many actions and institutions are legitimised.

And look at the delicate euphemism behind Bush’s speech: we will meet the challenge of “chaos and carnage” with our own, with more than “legal papers”. I keep trying but I can’t imagine Blair ever saying this. Both are devout Christians, so you might have thought such moral-stuffed language would come merrily; so it’s a cultural distinction. Specifically, the attitude towards capital punishment. Polls do occasionally show majorities or pluralities of Brits in favour of it for the most abominable crimes, but that’s never true of the political classes. The fact that it’s far more acceptable in America makes banging the drums a little easier, wouldn’t you say? It’s easier to imply that justice will be violent when “an eye for an eye” sits behind a constitution.

What was always so remarkable about the American revolution was how mob warfare did not become mob rule in triumph. Unlike France later on, America built its institutions around strict codes, establishing a state subservient to absolute laws that derived their authority from secular rather than religious morality. But I find the death penalty to be an excess of this. The constitution should never have been revered – since it took a civil war to drive out slavery – and the elimination of murder as a form of justice would I think improve it that little bit more. It makes war far harder to justify.

For example: people like myself, for whom it is contemptuous that a state might assume so great a moral authority than it can kill its citizens, find an anti-war position instinctive. To support the killing of the foreign “enemies” to which Bush alluded conflicts with the view that death should never be an instrument of justice. It’s sometimes made more bearable through talk of “collateral damage”, where death is recognised but it’s penciled in coolly without the shallow confidence. In other words, paradoxes have to be overcome before a war is supported, and so it makes it all the more important to weigh up reality against idealism; war would have to be a last resort, and it would have to be purely strategic. No gleeful yodeling at the death of an enemy, no talk of “justice”. Only pure, cold, calculated facts.

Or at least, one can hope.

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