Paradox and sacrifice: Exploring the use of the death penalty

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While the death penalty can be seen as the ultimate exercise of state authority, its misuse can undermine authority and its use is strewn with paradoxes.

Presenting his paper at a Department of History and Civilization colloquium, Professor Pavel Kolář explored the use of the death penalty in Europe after 1945 on both sides of the iron curtain exposing common themes which remain salient today.

According to Kolář  the inherent violence of execution sits at odds with the state’s aim to protect its citizens, while the move to make state executions more humane and less of a spectacle has removed some, though not all, of its symbolic power.

“The death penalty constitutes a zone of paradox in which modern bio-politics, that is the concern with the life of the population, and mythical sovereign power, continue to clash. This [can] unsettle the state’s power,” said Kolář.

While the death penalty can be a means for the state to exert its control, it also presents the possibility to undermine its authority if the punishment is misused, either on an innocent or someone public opinion deems worthy of clemency.

With evidence the death penalty provides no additional deterrent compared to incarceration, and self-evidently offering no chance for rehabilitation, executions have been compared to state sanctioned sacrifice where the death attains “transcendental significance” either from the state or the individual.

“The modern state seeks to exterminate any transcendental significance from legal killing,” said Kolář. “Its purpose is to construct an un-sacrificial subject. Death means a pure destruction of life.”

Fear over the creation of martyrs, Kolář argues, may explain the increased use of extrajudicial executions carried out on non-citizens, with such acts denying the individual the opportunity to present themselves as a vehicle for a larger cause, by denying them any attempt at authorship over their own death.

“The decision to kill Osama bin Laden ‘in combat’ instead of bringing him to court was visibly driven by the aim to avoid a post facto creation of a martyr.”

Such complexities may go some way to explaining why the death penalty has been abolished in Europe over the 20th century even in vastly different political systems.


Feature image: Flickr/Creative Commons