The response of Obama, and much of America it seems, to the death of bin Laden sent me back to an essay by Thomas Lacquer on the persistence of the death penalty in the land of the free.
Lacquer finds it odd, as in so many respects the US is in line with post-enlightenment thinking, but not in this respect. So what does the death penalty do for the US, he asks, that makes it so necessary? He believes there is a ‘primordial sacrificial logic’ at play. The death penalty actually has little to do with punishment and criminal justice, in spite of appearances. Rather, it is ‘a ritual reassertion of a communal moral order’.
There is something of that sacrificial feel around bin Laden’s death. It is apparently reuniting political enemies. It has reasserted America’s sense of mission. It makes Americans proud, relieved, festive. Again, this is not how a post-enlightenment thinker could view the terrorist’s death. There was no process of justice, it appearing to be more like a summary execution.
Lacquer believes America’s insistence on its right to kill is one point at which the separation of religious and secular powers collapses. Like a scapegoat, designated for ‘absolute removal’, the deaths of a select few assure the many that their sins do not, finally, remove America from divine favour. In a fascinating paragraph, he continues:
Human depravity, on this view, makes it necessary for civil government to assume the power of divine authority. Liberty, inalienable individual rights, procedural correctness and hopes for reformation or redemption have to be balanced against obligation, against the needs of a righteous community, and against the feeling that, social contract or no social contract, for civil government to be legitimate it has somehow to be congruent with God’s governance. In other words, a government here on earth can cast out and kill certain of its citizens under certain circumstances because God in heaven has ordained that this should be so. Capital punishment is the expression of both divine and communal outrage at those who have excluded themselves from full humanity through their acts.
Bin Laden was, obviously, not a citizen, but his absolute removal at the hands of special forces does feel like ‘the expression of both divine and communal outrage at those who have excluded themselves from full humanity through their acts.’ Bin Laden is finally consigned to the lowest circle of hell, and America can know, once more, that it is a city upon a hill.
(Image: Josh Pesavento – Times Square on the night Osama bin Laden killed)