Camus on Death and Politics

“It is a peculiarity of our times. We make love by telephone, we no longer work with material but with machines, and kill and are killed by proxy. We gain in neatness but lose in understanding.”—Albert Camus

There is an interesting set of essays written by Camus for an underground French resistance newspaper that ran from 1943 until 1947 (the period of postwar provisional government). The articles were later collected in the volume Between Hell and Reason (Wesleyan University Press, 1991).

The Liberation of France saw the removal of Nazi and Vichy rule and the punishment of war criminals, a measure which Camus initially endorsed. However as time went on many “anti-fascists” showed themselves to be little better than the totalitarians they had replaced. An estimated 10,000 people were killed, mostly without trial. It was against this background of violent purges of real and suspected collaborators that Camus became an opponent of the death penalty.

A conservative can agree with the leftist French existentialist that political killings per se give rise to great injustice. It was this belief that led Camus to later criticize Communism. Speaking of those who sought the deaths of fascists:

They argued their point most forcefully. But I think that they were able to argue with such force because they refused to imagine other people’s deaths.

Camus also spoke of “the problem of utopia” whereby everyone “believes that his truth is the one that will bring happiness to men,” yet we have a world “where men are still killed, threatened, and deported.” I agree with Camus about the ease with which political atrocities can be carried out. I part ways with him on opposition to capital punishment for murder.

That said, the initial debate between Camus and the liberal Catholic writer Francois Mauriac poses an interesting point: “The Christian can believe that human justice is always supplemented by divine justice and consequently that indulgence [e.g., leniency] is preferable.” The atheist Camus found this not very satisfying. Some will say that we cannot take a life, even a guilty one, and that God will exact the most perfect justice in the next world. But this strikes me as a false inference from a valid premise. If one were to follow such thinking to its logical extreme we should forsake temporal punishment for any transgression.

To return to the problem of “political justice”—as promoted, for example, in our modern “hate crimes” legislation—it is a highly dangerous and nebulous concept. It enforces not justice but ideological bias. It was perhaps understandable for Camus to believe that a “zero tolerance” policy on execution would avoid the totalitarian temptation. Yet many revolutionary regimes have abolished the death penalty for civil crimes and gone on to kill large numbers of people for political nonconformity. The real question is not so much the power of government over life and death, but to what ends (such as building a “utopia”) it exercises those powers.

Related comments: Camus’ Strange Fiction and The Existentialists

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