Should We Bring Back the Guillotine?

Culture Watch

Mr. Alger is a freelance writer.

Albert Camus began his classic essay Reflections on the Guillotine with an anecdote about his father’s excitement over the prospect of attending the execution of a man guilty of a particularly heinous crime in which he slaughtered a family of farmers, including children. Camus’s father believed that the guillotine was too mild a punishment for one who was guilty of such a bloodthirsty crime, but still, he dutifully set out in the dark to go to the designated place of execution at the other end of town where a great crowd had gathered.

And what was the point of the anecdote? Quite simply that when Camus’s father returned home, he didn’t say anything about what he’d seen, but instead, lay down and suddenly began to vomit.

“When the extreme penalty simply causes vomiting on the part of the respectable citizen it is supposed to protect, how can anyone maintain that it is likely, as it ought to be, to bring more peace and order into the community?” Camus writes. “Rather, it is obviously no less repulsive than the crime, and this new murder, far from making amends for harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one.”

Camus, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, published Reflections on the Guillotine the same year, twenty-four years before capital punishment was abolished in France. The author, who was born in Algiers, stated in his essay, “For years I have been unable to see anything in capital punishment but a penalty the imagination could not endure and a lazy disorder that my reason condemned.”

The debate over capital punishment in the United States is usually a sleeper issue until a high profile case, such as the recent execution of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, by lethal injection, pops up in the mainstream media. Most executions take place behind prison walls with little or no fanfare, exactly the point Camus made when he first called for the abolition of capital punishment.

For anyone to claim that capital punishment is exemplary or a deterrent, Camus argues, “the entire population should be invited, and the ceremony should be put on television for those who couldn’t attend. Either this must be done or else there must be no more talk of exemplary value.”

If society truly believed that potential murderers would be deterred from carrying out the deed because of executions, Camus logically concludes, then executions would be given the publicity of “national bond issues” or “new brands of drinks.” But then, just as now in the United States, that is hardly the case.

Those who favor capital punishment can smugly point to McVeigh as the poster child, case closed, of why the death penalty is necessary, even in a so-called civilized society. What is always missing in the debate, however, is the existence of the death penalty itself. Instead, the polemics surround a figure, such as McVeigh, magnified to celebrity proportions to represent a larger than life evil, with proponents of the death penalty demanding with venomous conviction for anyone against capital punishment to justify why McVeigh should be allowed to live.

Of course, those for capital punishment can also extol the wonders of science, lethal injection, very civilized today, instead of the guillotine, a barbaric mechanism lopping off heads, forgetting that it was first invented by Dr, Joseph Guillotin as a swift and merciful way of disposing of the condemned. The good doctor never envisioned the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution when the slicing blade began to rust from the blood stains of the victims.

The last public execution in France, Camus relates, was in 1939 where a crowd and photographers gathered at Versailles for the event. A page of illustrations was subsequently published in Paris-Soir, but instead of praising the publicity of the so-called necessary punishment, the government condemned the press for trying to satisfy the sadistic instincts of its readers. Ergo, the government decreed, No more public executions.

“How can a future criminal keep in mind, at the moment of his crime, a sanction that everyone strives to make more and more abstract?” Camus questions. “Today, there is no spectacle, but only a penalty known to all by hearsay and, from time to time, the news of an execution dressed up in soothing phrases.”

Camus also noted that according to a magistrate with whom he was familiar, the vast majority of murderers that the magistrate had known had no idea when shaving in the morning that they were going to kill someone later in the day. Perhaps, Camus suggests, to prevent future murders, it would be wiser to hold up a severed head in front of all who are shaving in the morning instead of hiding executions from public view.

“A law is applied without being thought out, and the condemned die in the name of a theory in which the executioners do not believe,” Camus states. “If society justifies the death penalty by the necessity of the example, it must justify itself by making the publicity necessary. It must show the executioners’ hands each time and force everyone to look at them -- the over-delicate citizens and all those who had any responsibility in bringing the executioner into being. Otherwise society admits that it kills without knowing what it is saying or doing.”

Camus observes that no one knows how many would be criminals were deterred by the existence of the death penalty, only the number who weren’t. Like others before him, he points out that pickpockets were once executed in England, and rather than preventing pickpockets from practicing their trade, they instead made their way through the crowd gathered around the scaffold, not passing up such an opportunity when the pickings would be so good.

Yet, still capital punishment continued in France at the time Camus wrote Reflections on the Guillotine, based on, as he stated, “the blind hope that one man at least, one day, will be stopped from his murderous gesture by the thought of the punishment and, without anyone’s ever knowing it, will justify a law that has neither reason nor experience in its favor.”

Before the vivid, haunting screen image of Sean Penn in “Dead Man Walking,” or earlier when Susan Hayward Academy Award performance in “I Want to Live,” Camus captured the scene in his essay of the condemned individual who fluctuates between hope and despair while caught up in the machinery of the state conveying that person, because, after all, it is still a person, to the inevitable outcome.

“The devastating, degrading fear that is imposed on the condemned for months or years is a punishment more terrible than death, and one that was not imposed on the victim,” Camus states.

So, in the eyes of Camus, capital punishment was really no more than a case of retaliation, a violent emotion, not a principle. And, furthermore, he noted, retaliation is related to nature and instinct, not law, which, one would hope is intended to correct and not merely imitate or reproduce that nature.

“But there could not really be any justice unless the condemned, after making known his decision months in advance, had approached his victim, bound him firmly, informed him that he would be put to death in an hour, and had finally used that hour to set up the apparatus of death,” Camus writes. “What criminal ever reduced his victim to such a desperate and powerless condition?”

Still, times change, and Camus’s essay appeared long before the media could instantaneously carry more than anyone could possibly want to know into living rooms twenty-four hours a days. Camus is gone now, his career cut short by his sudden death at the age of forty-six, but capital punishment is gone in France as well. And, McVeigh is no more either, but one wonders how many can name the next person executed in the United States, and the next, and the next? If nothing else, it could be a stumper of a question of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

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