Death, and its fan club

August 1, 2011

This is Anders Breivik:

He believes that someone – specifically him – has the right to kill other people.

This is Paul Staines:

He believes that someone – specifically, a state-appointed murderer – has the right to kill other people.

Equating people you disagree with to murderous child-killers is a churlish argumentative technique, I would normally aver. Even in this more exceptional case, it still feels somewhat distasteful. The reason I have used it is that Staines’ campaign to re-instate the State’s right to kill child murderers (like Breivik) and cop killers throws the question of what death is – and whether it constitutes a suitable punishment for anything – into harsh relief.

The nature of death is not widely discussed in our society, beyond the witterings of teenage Goths. The rest of this post will therefore most likely resemble bad teenage angst poetry, because it’s very difficult to talk about death without lapsing into cliche.

Death represents the end of consciousness; the end of the means by which we have access to the material world, and the end of any possibility of altering one’s fate. It is the end of all experience. As such, it’s something I’d quite like to avoid if at all possible, being a fan of my continued experiencing of the world. However, inevitably, one day I shall die and my consciousness will end. I will cease to be in a sense which is fundamentally unimaginable; one cannot even conceptualise the absence of imagination, thought or conscious awareness, for they are the means by which anything is conceptualised. It is ultimately unknowable, the boundary of knowledge and the limit of understanding. It’s pretty bad.

What it is not, however, is punishment. Everyone dies, eventually. The death penalty simply means bringing this date forward. Breivik’s victims were not punished by their murder. My grandmother was not punished by dying. Punishment is an adverse outcome for a particular crime or transgression, but death is the end of any possible outcome, the termination of potential adversity. Certainly, death is a bad thing, as we cherish continued existence, but not all bad things are punishments. Being threatened with death, or being on death row, is a punishment, because you’re there to experience you not wanting to die. But as soon as you’re killed that want vanishes and it no longer makes sense to say that you’re being punished. How could you be? You’re dead. I am glad that the Moors murderers have spent decades in confinement, rather than being granted a swift death after they were judged, as that is far more punishing than a simple death could ever be.

Killing is not a punishment. Rather, it is an elimination – a removal of a potential threat to our existence. That is why we mandate the State to kill on our behalf in war. That is why we grant the right to kill in extreme self defence. If we kill child murderers and cop killers, we portray them as threats to our society, to our existence. To do so is a very dangerous thing, because it allows politicians to claim that they are defending our society by killing people who are not genuinely a threat to it (click for big):

Sources: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund & Death Penalty Information Centre

In the US, executing more people doesn’t reduce the number of cops who are killed – if anything, the correlation works the other way round. All it provides is another tool for politicians to use to satisfy a primal lust for revenge on criminals, rather than a real tool to reduce the number of policemen killed in the line of duty. I don’t need to tell you about the uses to which politicians have put tools of the former sort in the past.

Both Breivik and Staines believe murder a suitable fate for people they despise. These fans of death both seek to open the door to the worst sort of politician. In the end, their endeavours may lead to deaths – albeit, not the ones they hoped for.

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