Over 50 years ago, though I cannot help remarking that the years seem impossible, Albert Camus remarked to my father — at the time based in France as a State Department official and Partisan Review correspondent — that he was at work on an essay on capital punishment. “Vous êtes contre,” my father said, anticipating the thinking of a writer whose mind he had studied for years through his writings and for whose character he had some feeling, though the two were never close friends. “Bien entendu,” Camus replied in his reserved way.
Of course I am against, he said. Published at nearly the same time as he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus’s Réflexions sur la guillotine is perhaps the most famous modern polemic against the death penalty. It marshals most of the arguments that are lined up every time the topic comes up; proponents and opponents of state-sanctioned execution of criminals do little more, with varying degrees of eloquence, rational coherence, and emotional appeal, than repeat the arguments Camus made then and that he discussed with some of his friends and acquaintances as he went to work in 1956 and ’57 on his classic piece.
Although, characteristically, Camus’s reflections were profoundly informed by philosophical training that was deeply seeped, as befit a man of the Mediterranean, in classical Greek thought, it comes as no surprise that the decision to address the subject was motivated by personal anguish. Camus was haunted all his life, it comes up again in his late writings, by his own father’s reaction to a public execution. Until after World War II, French penal authorities had the option of dressing the guillotine, the head-chopping machine invented during the French Revolution, as a humane improvement (as indeed it was, though Camus pointed out in his essay that it did not always work as advertised) over the methods used in previous times, which were quite deliberately designed to cause lasting horror in anyone who observed them. Notwithstanding, Camus’s father, who was no opponent of the death penalty, was sickened by what he saw and transmitted his aversion to his son. Camus’s father was killed at the front in September 1914. The memories Camus had of his father were those of very early childhood only, and he did not mind admitting that the shock caused by that public execution in Algiers was one of the most indelible.
In the mid-1950s, Camus was concerned that the execution — within prison walls by now — of Algerian terrorists (freedom-fighters by their own lights, or mujahideen, as they referred to themselves) was politically counter-productive, quite apart from indefensible on rational grounds. He did not deny the morality of “an eye for an eye” justice, but he argued that it never worked out that way. In the spiraling violence in his country, every shooting of a French policeman, every search-and-destroy mission against the commando responsible, every bomb in a European café killing civilians, every retaliatory dynamiting of a house in the casbah by white vigilantes, contributed, as Camus well saw, to a situation increasingly impermeable to any sort of discussion of compromise and reform between the belligerent parties. He had been pleading for such discussion since the late 1930s when in his earliest reporting (for the communist paper Alger-Républicain) he said the unjust colonial conditions in Algeria, based on self-serving lies (officially Algeria was not a colony), created a ticking time bomb.
Camus had zero sympathy for the Algerian national movement’s terrorist squads — indeed despite his understanding of his own country, which stood in such glaring contrast to the armchair lesson-givers in Paris like Sartre who scarcely knew where the place was, he could summon no sympathy for the Algerian national movement as such. He viewed it, in a way that could not help but sound like a right-wing caricature but that was eerily prescient, variously as a communist and pan-Arabist conspiracy, and he noted that an Arab Algeria made as much sense as a Berber or a Maltese or a Jewish one. However, he clung to the hope that men of good will would be heard above the din and a decent, essentially federalist, solution might be found. He was sadly mistaken. His own people nearly lynched him when he came home to argue for a “civil truce” followed by negotiations.
In this context, Camus saw no useful purpose gained by executing convicted bomb-throwers and non-uniformed combatants, which under the laws of war was not illegal, though some of the methods used by French authorities to win convictions probably were. Repeatedly, and in complete discretion, he petitioned for stays and orders of clemency, won a few, lost many. The minister of justice who often refused them was a hungry young politician named François Mitterrand, whose position he summed up tersely: “Our policy is war.” As president of France several decades later, Mitterrand encouraged his justice minister, the eminent jurist Robert Badinter, to put through abolitionist legislation, which he did.
All this does, Camus said, is push the extremists to the fore. He was right: when the French withdrew after seven ghastly years of fighting, the most radical nationalists easily took over, then fell out among themselves, leading to more fighting followed by the almost inevitable military dictatorship.
Wartime is not peacetime and a society in which the rule of law and due process are observed is not the same as one torn by a violent insurgency by have-nots (including have-not any political or civil rights) against haves (though often very poor haves, as Camus well knew.) But it is difficult not to see in the painstaking efforts of our states to apply the ultimate sanction of justice the pertinence of the issues Albert Camus raised many decades ago.
Executions on the same day this past week illustrate Camus’s description of capital punishment as “the longest pre-meditated murder” in a way he never would have imagined. Troy Davis, executed by the state of Georgia for a crime committed over 20 years ago, maintained his innocence to the very end, as did Lawrence Russell Brewer’s execution (by the same method of lethal injection, said to be painless) by Texas was almost expeditious by comparison, as the crime for which he, too, rejected responsibility to the end occurred only 13 years ago.
In referring to state-sanctioned “murder” Camus did not mean to bring a kind of moral relativism into the discussion. On the contrary, the classic moralist that he was would have insisted that killing is killing, and killing when the killed has no defenses is murder. He would not, he did not, say the state was not justified in doing this on moral grounds; he never went in for the false sentimentality of root social causes and the non-responsibility of the criminal. Beyond such practical issues as whether or not the death penalty has a deterrent effect (an unending debate, Camus thought, with some statistical evidence in support, that it has none), the question is whether a civilized community, through its state, defends itself effectively by choosing revenge in its most final and irrevocable form.
Recalling his conversations with Camus, my father said, “His morality was absolute. He was a man of the Mediterranean and as such, you know, austere, almost puritanical. He was a kind man, but strict, severe.”
I assumed they had discussed the Rosenberg’s. “Yes, of course, that was one of the cases that provoked his reflection. You know, he was an anti-communist and he was quite able to accept they had a fair trial. He knew how much damage the atomic espionage rings caused us, and collaterally France and even — to the degree he saw the Soviet hand in the Algerian affair — his home.”
“But he was against.”
“Well, again, he asked what good does it do? Why can’t we, leaders of the Free World and defenders of civilization, defend ourselves without this form of punishment? “Voyez, Kaplan,” he said, “les effets que les cocos vont en tirer.” See the propaganda value of this affair to the communists, he meant. And he was right about that.
My father usually agreed with Camus, while reproaching him very gently for some of his literary efforts and while objecting to his cold war positions, which could on occasion be convoluted. Neither man would have found any compassionate or moral grounds for staying the sentences against the convicted killers in Georgia and Texas, though in the case of the former I think both would have worried about the questions about the evidence that repeatedly were raised. The author of The Stranger and The Misunderstanding certainly would have understood the horror of a casually racist killing and would have noted the historical significance of the firm stance taken by a Southern state in responding to it, just as he would have agonized about the lack of a murder weapon in the Georgia case and the ambiguous witnesses.
The stances of the families of the victims in both cases are completely understandable, one can even say admirable and poignant. There remains this: are we like the Taliban, who give to the families of victims the final say on whether murderers should be killed, and the choice of weapons with which to carry out the sentence?
My father and Albert Camus were believers in progress. But neither one thought progress is achieved by social engineering or replacing by means of violent revolution an unfair system with a theoretically more just one. Their stance was, remains, a difficult one, perhaps impossible, but courageous. The terrible question of capital punishment in our country, model of freedom under law in a flawed and, as Governor Perry says, broken world, reminds us that humility and skepticism remain necessary counterweights to our upbeat optimism for the future.