JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Theater of command

Theater of execution

Does the system work?

Assessor Fred

Fail safe

Aesthetics of War I

Aesthetics of War II

Righteous Bob

Righteous Fred

Historical perspective

Functionary Fred

Functionary Bob

Historian Van Pelt sees how euphemism and coded language make savagery socially permissible.

"I analyzed bombing operations and how to make them more efficient."

Thou shalt not kill.

 

Killing killers for having killed

The institution of state execution, which kills killers for having killed on the grounds that killing human beings is morally wrong, embodies similar contradictions to those involved in the waging of war for peace. Proponents of capital punishment draw a moral distinction between the victims of capital criminals and the people executed upon conviction of murder by the state, but even if one distinguishes the former from the latter, certain nagging problems persist.

Whether or not “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is a sound principle of retributive justice, the insurmountable problem with state execution is that it is carried out by fallible human beings, from start to finish. The ACLU has estimated that one out of every twenty-seven people on death row is actually innocent of the crime for which he has been sentenced to death. While such statistics can only be speculative, it is indisputable that some executed convicts have been posthumously exonerated, and the possibilities for error in criminal trials are rife: from the collection of evidence by fallible detectives, to the analysis of evidence by fallible technicians, to the sometimes inadequate defense provided to destitute suspects (particularly by the overworked and underpaid district attorneys who tend to defend them), to the unavoidably biased interpretation of the facts presented in court to fallible jurors and, finally, by the fallible judge who presides over the case.

Furthermore, because the jury selection process excludes from the outset those citizens opposed, on principle, to the death penalty, trial jurors in capital cases have a greater tendency to impose the death penalty than would an average citizen selected randomly from the general population. To make matters worse, because a disproportionately high percentage of convicted murderers on death row are black, there are grounds for believing that, as things stand, the imposition of capital punishment is itself racially slanted. Alternatively, the practice may simply be classist, for a disproportionately high percentage of black men are also poor.

These sorts of subtleties elude Fred Leuchter, and probably anyone else involved in the practice of state execution, for they simply assume that the people whose deaths they are helping to effect deserve to die. Leuchter regards the justice of capital punishment as a given, and the manner in which to carry it out as a straightforward problem of engineering. The essential contradiction inherent in the idea of human beings devising the means by which to annihilate human beings is nowhere better illuminated than in Leuchter’s own comparison of execution to life support systems:

"There is no difference in a life support system and an execution system. The system has to function flawlessly for the time period that it is operating. With a life support system, if it doesn’t function, the person dies. With an execution system, if it doesn’t function flawlessly, the person lives.”

Throughout both Mr. Death and The Fog of War, Morris highlights the tactile thingness of the machines of death, a reminder that only sentient beings can appreciate the sensory qualities of this equipment, expressly designed in order to destroy the very capacity of people to perceive.

The role of functionaries
in death industries

In some ways, McNamara and Leuchter bear striking resemblances to Adolf Eichmann, at least as portrayed by Hannah Arendt:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal."[2]

During the height of his professional career, each of these men’s attitudes toward the taking of human life was the same, and each took himself to be acting in a principled way. Just as McNamara and Leuchter conceptualized in moral terms their professional involvement in destroying human beings, Adolf Eichmann claimed to be a rule-governed, law-abiding citizen, a person so principled and disciplined that he even acted in accordance with Kant’s categorical imperative. Eichmann, like so many others throughout history involved in mass murder, was a functionary, and his leader, like most throughout history, did not ask anyone to murder other people. Rather, Hitler justified his war by appeal to the usual moral rhetoric, most notably in terms of self-defense:

"Today it is not princes and princes’ mistresses who haggle and bargain over state borders; it is the inexorable Jew who struggles for his domination over the nations. No nation can remove this hand from its throat except by the sword. Only the assembled and concentrated might of a national passion rearing up in its strength can defy the international enslavement of peoples. Such a process is and remains a bloody one.”[3]

The Germans involved with the death industries of the Third Reich did not ask whether they should be killing for the state. Rather, they focused their energies on how to go about doing it.[4]

McNamara and Leuchter, too, acted as exemplary functionaries, directing their energies and intellect to the development of methods by which to destroy human beings in the name of “justice.” This is not, however, to suggest that Leuchter and McNamara were somehow exceptional in this respect. People often claim that they would have fled or helped the resistance, or acted in some other way so as to thwart the evil Nazis, but the tragic truth is that most people would have done precisely what most of the Germans did, viz., accept as true the proclamations of their government, a government which was in fact put in place by the people themselves. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Holocaust is the fact that the people who accepted “the received view” at the time were complicit in their government’s slaughter of millions of innocent people.

In Mr. Death, historian Van Pelt reminds us that the Nazis were themselves the first to deny the reality of the Holocaust, for they used a coded language, according to which chemical extermination was “special treatment.” The use of this coded language is no doubt one of the reasons why the Third Reich succeeded to the extent to which and for so long as it did. Similarly, when, today, people support their leaders’ decisions to go to war, they do so under the interpretation which has been offered to them by the executors of the war themselves, in an idiom that codes civilian slaughter as “collateral damage.” McNamara himself recasts the notion of military “efficiency” as follows:

“I analyzed bombing operations, and how to make them more efficient—Not more efficient in the sense of killing more, but more efficient in weakening the adversary.”

While Leuchter and McNamara simply accepted that state killing is a perfectly respectable enterprise, they are far from unique in this regard. Throughout history, human beings have found ways to interpret their own acts of killing as at least permissible (in self-defense), if not obligatory (to combat evil). Indeed, some of the most savage battles and practices throughout human history have been and continue to be carried out by self-proclaimed Christians, who interpret “Thou shalt not kill” to mean “Thou shalt not murder,” and maintain that their own acts of killing, even of indisputably innocent people, are never unjust.[5]

Continued: Leuchter and McNamara’s tragic flaws


To topPrint versionJC 47 Jump Cut home