Albert Camus’ Reflections on the Guillotine
Albert Camus was a writer and philosopher, who during his lifetime was called “the conscience of the West” and awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” In 1957, Albert Camus wrote an essay Reflections on the Guillotine (Réflexions sur la Guillotine).
Executions with the help of the guillotine were used in France before the death penalty was abolished in 1981.
In his essay, Camus refers emotions – he tells how the death penalty looks in reality and not in abstract arguments about the “measure of justice.” Camus opens the essay with a story about his father (a supporter of the death penalty), who goes to see the execution of a murderer...
“Shortly before World War I, a murderer whose crime was particularly shocking (he had killed a family of farmers, children and all) was condemned to death in Algiers. He was an agricultural worker who had slaughtered in a bloody delirium, and had rendered his offense still more serious by robbing his victims. The case was widely publicized, and it was generally agreed that decapitation was altogether too mild a punishment for such a monster. I have been told this was the opinion of my father, who was particularly outraged by the murder of the children. One of the few things I know about him is that this was the first time in his life he wanted to attend an execution. He got up while it was still dark, for the place where the guillotine was set up was at the other end of the city, and once there, found himself among a great crowd of spectators. He never told what he saw that morning. My mother could only report that he rushed wildly into the house, refused to speak, threw himself on the bed, and suddenly began to vomit. He had just discovered the reality concealed beneath the great formulas that ordinarily serve to mask it. Instead of thinking of the murdered children, he could recall only the trembling body he had seen thrown on a board to have its head chopped off.
This ritual act must indeed be horrible if it can subvert the indignation of a simple, upright man; if the punishment which he regarded as deserved a hundred times over had no other effect on him than to turn his stomach. When the supreme act of justice merely nauseates the honest citizen it is supposed to protect, it seems difficult to maintain that this act is intended—as its proper functioning should intend it—to confer a greater degree of peace and order upon the city. Justice of this kind is obviously no less shocking than the crime itself, and the new "official" murder, far from offering redress for the offense committed against society, adds instead a second defilement to the first.”
Camus writes about the death penalty as a relic of the past: “The criminal is killed because he has been killed for centuries, and furthermore he is killed according to a procedure established at the end of the eighteenth century. The same arguments that have served as legal tender for centuries are perpetuated as a matter of routine, contradicted only by those measures which the evolution of public sensibility renders inevitable.”
The author mentions the responsibility of those who favor the death penalty as a “measure of justice”: “If society justifies the death penalty as a necessary example, then it must justify itself by providing the publicity necessary to make an example. Society must display the executioner's hands on each occasion, and require the most squeamish citizens to look at them, as well as those who, directly or remotely, have supported the work of those hands from the first.”
Albert Camus also speaks of theineffectiveness ofthe punishment: “According to one magistrate, the overwhelming majority of the murderers he had tried did not know, when they shaved themselves that morning, that they were going to kill someone that night.”
“In short, capital punishment cannot intimidate the man who throws himself upon crime as one throws oneself into misery,” sums up the writer.