Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Walzer on executing tyrants

Michael Walzer asks: “Is it possible to oppose the death penalty and still be in favor of killing tyrants?” (He means executing through legal process after an overthrow, rather than assassinating a reigning tyrant.)

He thinks the answer is yes, and is aware of the tension this position creates. After a brief discussion of the historical acceptance of executing deposed monarchs, he suggests that:

“kings were killed because ordinary criminals were also, routinely, being killed. In Iraq, Saddam was killed because the death penalty was legally established and widely accepted. So here is an easier position than the one that I began with: I want to abolish the death penalty, but I don’t want to mark the abolition by saving a tyrant. Let the first person saved by abolition be someone like you and me, who has never been all-powerful, who has never been a brutal and cruel ruler of millions. … And then, after [the tyrant] has been convicted, he is executed, because only execution makes for the definitive end of tyrannical rule. Only execution provides the closure that the political community needs.
“But now imagine that the death penalty were already abolished: would I still favor the execution of a tyrant? I don’t think that question will ever arise, because tyrants-as-we-know-them have never ruled without the death penalty. A tyrannical state is always in the killing business, so perhaps a state that is out of the killing business cannot be tyrannical. If that is right, then the execution of a tyrant should be the last execution.”

There are three things seriously wrong with this argument. The first is that it accepts the legal system that licenses execution – which has come into being under a brutal tyrant – as legitimate. The second is that it demands the execution of all relevant ‘ordinary’ criminals who happen to be convicted before the (doubtless lengthy) tyrant’s trial and appeals are concluded.

The third problem relates to the fact that opposition to capital punishment generally involves a belief in the inalienable value of each human life and that the state should not coolly, calmly, deliberately kill a now-defenceless individual. But Walzer’s case for executing tyrants is based on the wider good for society: providing “closure”. This consideration, though, could perfectly well be (and frequently is) applied to ‘ordinary’ murderers. The reason for the exception he makes has a logic that would lead to its becoming the rule, so I’m not sure on what grounds he can consistently oppose the death penalty in general.

No comments: