By Thomas B. Byers
I would kill if I had to.
If someone was harming one of my children, for instance, I would kill him (it would almost certainly be a male) if that is what it took to stop him. Most of us would, I think. But it would take that kind of exigency for me to see myself as justified in killing another. I do not think I would kill for revenge – though what I might actually do in the most extreme grief and rage I can’t say for certain. I know I’d want to kill someone who killed my children. But if I did kill him, I think I’d be wrong. Not because the killer I am imagining would “deserve” to live – there are people who do such terrible things that they would lose, in my mind, their claim to value or worth as individual subjects. Nonetheless, I’d be wrong to kill him because I would not have to. One kills if one has to. Otherwise, no.
I oppose the death penalty because I want a State that kills only if it has to. I have two reasons for this. The first is that, for all the problems with U.S. democracy, I feel the force of the idea that on some level the State acts, or claims to act, in the name of the citizens – which means in my name. As I do not want to kill if I don’t have to, I do not want anyone or anything to kill in my name if it does not have to. In my state, the State feels executions are legitimized by the notion that, in a different sense of the word “execute,” the State is executing the will of the people. But unnecessary killing is not my will.
So I want a state that kills only when it has to because I am a part of the State and it is the agent of the subjects it represents. I am one of the subjects of its agency. But the other reason I want a state that kills only when it has to is that I am also subject to its agency. I would not want the State to kill me, and to the degree that I am only one instance of a larger category – the category of subjects subjected to its rule – I want the category (all who are ruled by the State) to be free from unnecessary State violence.
My opposition to the death penalty developed surprisingly later than did my progressive politics in general, partly because of my non-sympathy – I do not believe it should be construed as a lack – toward some (though not all) offenders: for instance, toward those responsible for political mass murder. My opposition came about not through thinking about what the death penalty would make of them – corpses, with all that entails – but what it would make of me: a participant in optional killing. It is worth noting that the death penalty creates a whole category of people, all the executioners and technologists of execution, who become much more materially and literally killers. But my initial concern was for what my consent to executions would make me.
Since then, my reasoning has evolved farther. I think this results in part from the private experience of witnessing both births and deaths, as well as the public experience of participating in a vigil protesting the 1997 execution of Harold McQueen, Jr., the first execution after a hiatus of 35 years in my home state of Kentucky. But it also results from the intersection of these experiences with my reading. I have found myself provoked by Slavoj Žižek’s denigration of mere survival as trivial, and his suggestion that perhaps “we are ‘really alive’ only if we commit ourselves with an excessive intensity which puts us beyond ‘mere life’” (Welcome to the Desert of the Real 88). Having witnessed a long and losing struggle on the part of one dear to me for “mere life,” I think Žižek knew not whereof he spoke. I side instead with Tony Kushner’s character, Prior Walter, in Angels in America when (in Part 2: Perestroika V, v), confronting the angels who suggest that he “creep away to death” to avoid a coming apocalypse, he responds this way:
I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do.
I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much, much worse, but…. You see them living anyway. When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die. But I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive. […] It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but…Bless me anyway. I want more life.
But how, one might reasonably ask, is this desire relevant in the case of the convicted murderer, who has presumably deprived another – or many others – of more life? Has he not forfeited his own? But even if we take the position that he has, and even if we set aside all the perils with which this course is fraught (What if he is actually innocent? What if he was sentenced to death for being a murderer – and Black? What if, at 45 when executed, he is not the same person he was when, at 20, he killed? And so on) – even if we set aside all of these, there is also the fact of life itself. By not killing him we honor that fact, and the habit of desire that for most of us, as for Prior Walter, comes with it. We do not excuse him; rather, we respect “mere” life itself as it is in him. And we refuse to become, as the murderer himself did become, one who says an eternal no to life.
Besides, everyone executed is also someone’s child.
I will close with a more theoretical and less personal meditation. Both Žižek’s “mere life” and Prior Walter’s “more life” resonate with Giorgio Agamben’s “bare life,” which he aligns with Aristotle’s zoē or “the mere fact of living itself.” On the one hand, Aristotle grants that “there is probably some kind of good” in this mere fact, and that “clearly most men will tolerate much suffering and hold on to life [zoē] as if were … a natural sweetness. (Aristotle, qtd. in Agamben, Homo Sacer, 2). On the other hand, Aristotle places this bare life lower in value than bios, “the form or way of living proper to an individual or group.” Zoē is excluded from the polis, and political life is bios politikos. This latter sort of life, unlike mere zoē, distinguishes us from other animals, because bios politikos is involved with language, and with questions of “the good and the evil, the just and the unjust.” Classically, for the citizen at least, it was (supposedly) this latter life, not mere zoē, that participated in and was subject to the State. Michel Foucault argues that it is only at the “‘threshhold of … modernity’” that the “individual as a simple living body become[s] what is at stake in a society’s political strategies” (Agamben 3). When biological life itself becomes “a problem of sovereign power”, we enter the realm of biopolitics. And this “entry of zoē into the polis” is the point where, among other things, the Holocaust becomes possible. The “final solution,” one might say, is the solution to a problem of the Nazis’ notion of their polis through the extension of the State’s power to the systematic extermination of zoē. But Agamben deconstructs Foucault’s historical account, by arguing that in the final analysis, sovereign power has always been based on “the inclusion of bare life in the political realm” (Agamben 6).
Execution by the State has since time immemorial been a symbol of that inclusion, a marker of the fact that in the end (even in democracies, classical or contemporary), bare life has always been included in and subjected to the State. Moreover, execution is a node where sovereign power, disciplinary power, and biopower come together in all their force against zoē. The State is not simply a marketplace of ideas or a voice of the citizens. It is at the same time always already another plot of the “dark and bloody ground” (one of the nicknames of my state, Kentucky) from which it purports to save us. Prohibition of the death penalty would not undo this knotting of power; indeed, in the larger picture it would be a relatively small intervention. But it would nonetheless be at least a whispered non serviam, a resistance to the side of the State that is darkness and blood.
Thomas B. Byers is Professor, Department of English, University of Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
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