Monday, 7 December 2009

Reflections on the guillotine

Some compelling words by Albert Camus in his eloquent 'Reflections on the Guillotine'. The original essay is much longer, and worth its every word.

I'll leave you with some abridged paragraphs: ___

"The survival of such a primitive rite [the death penalty] has been made possible among us only by the thoughtlessness or ignorance of the public, which reacts only with the ceremonial phrases that have been drilled into it. When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. But if the penalty is intended to be exemplary, how can a furtive assassination committed at night in a prison courtyard be exemplary? 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.

If society justifies the death penalty by the necessity of the example, it must justify itself by making the publicity necessary. Yet, the power of intimidation reaches only the quiet individuals who are not drawn toward crime and has no effect on the hardened ones who need to be softened. And the condemned is cut in two, not so much for the crime he committed but by virtue of all the crimes that might have been and were not committed, that can be and will not be committed. The sweeping uncertainty in this case authorizes the most implacable certainty.

In order to continue claiming that the guillotine is exemplary, the State is consequently led to multiply very real murders in the hope of avoiding a possible murder which, as far as it knows or ever will know, may never be perpetrated. An odd law, to be sure, which knows the murder it commits and will never know the one it prevents. This punishment that penalizes without forestalling is indeed called revenge. Whoever has done me harm must suffer harm... whoever has killed must die. This is an emotion, and a particularly violent one, not a principle.

Beheading is not simply death. It is murder, to be sure. But it adds to death a rule, a public premeditation known to the future victim, which is in itself a source of moral suffering more terrible than death. Hence there is no equivalence. What then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal's deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? 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. Two deaths are inflicted on him, the first being worse than the second, whereas he killed but once.

... Without absolute innocence, there is no supreme judge. Now, we have all done wrong in our lives even if that wrong, without falling within the jurisdiction of the laws, went as far as the unknown crime. There are no just people - merely hearts more or less lacking in justice. Living at least allows us a little of the good that will make up in part for the evil we have added to the world. Such a right to live, which allows a chance to make amends, is the natural right of every man, even the worst man. The lowest of criminals and the most upright of judges meet side by side, equally wretched in their solidarity. Without that right, moral life is utterly impossible. None among us is authorized to despair of a single man, except after his death, which transforms his life into destiny and then permits a definitive judgement. But pronouncing the definitive judgement before his death, decreeing the closing of accounts when the creditor is still alive, is no man's right. On this limit, at least, whoever judges absolutely condemns himself absolutely."

___ And Camus cites the Italian philosopher Beccarria, who sums up the illogicality, and thus the grossest injustice, of the death penalty:

"If it is important to give the people proofs of power often, then executions must be frequent; but crimes will have to be frequent too, and this will prove that the death penalty does not make the complete impression that it should, whence it results that it is both useless and necessary."


It seems, beneath the surety and self-righteousness of those who support the death penalty, lies an ignorant, irrational, and impenetrable blank where no rational argument is possible. And I think this is the greater crime regarding the death penalty.

To those who are raising awareness against state murder, fighting the fight and saving a life, I lend you my moral support here from where I am.


  1. Let me say, I prefer the death penalty to stay. There are simply some scums that need to be rid of in this world.

    But that doesn't mean the judges should be tied dead to it. Rules are dead, people are ALIVE.

    As a result, when wielding that sort of power we should not make ourselves "dead". Death penalties should only be dealt out in extreme cases, and even so, dependable on a person's circumstances and reasons behind the deeds.

    Cases like Yong should show the flexibility of mercy of laws. But yet it didnt. Our judical system has shown itself to be inflexible and cruel. It is detestable.

  2. George says:

    It is dictatorial.
    Because of it being absolute and removed of humanity that must surely be allowed to temper such decisions.

    It is the acme of the tyranny of man to decide but ONE OUTCOME for all that is to come.

    It is playing God, a MERCILESS one.

  3. @Jezebellaleong:

    The scum can be 'gotten rid of' by life imprisonment. There's no need to take his life away, and all the potential goodness that he can do should he live.

    When we come down to a certain point, we're pitting the language of vengeance with forgiveness. It should be obvious which one is morally superior - if not for that scum, then for us to abide by.

  4. A timeless essay by Camus, thank you for sharing this.

    I'd also encourage everyone to check out Amnesty International's Q&A on the Death Penalty:

  5. You're welcome, Seelan. And keep up the great work!


  6. Life imprisoment - does that serve any purpose?There are some people who would prefer to die than be incarcerated for life. Furthermore, I don't believe that the Singapore government would like to end up with more prsioners because of this.

    Isn't it better to think of taking care of thos outside in need than keep more prisoners whose basic needs will also need to be taken care of.