Social Protest Lit.: Albert Camus’ “Reflections on the Guillotine”

indexShort essay by Albert Camus entitled “Reflections on the Guillotine” from Book IV called “Out of The Depths.” This chapter is focused on man’s pursuit of remedy for social injustice:

In relation to crime, how can our civilization be defined? The reply is easy: for thirty years now, State crimes have been far more numerous than individual crimes. I am not even speaking of war, general and localized, although bloodshed too is an alcohol that eventually intoxicates like the headiest of wines. But the number of individuals killed directly by the State has assumed astronomical proportions and infinitely outnumbers private murders. There are fewer and fewer condemned by common law and more and more condemned to death, whereas the eventuality would have seemed ridiculous at the beginning of the century. Alphonse Karr’s witty remark, “Let the noble assassins begin” has no meaning now. Those who cause the blood to flow are the same ones who believe they have right, logic, and history on their side.

Hence our society must now defend herself not so much against the individual as against the State. It may be that the proportions will be reversed in another thirty years. But, for the moment, our self-defense must be aimed at the State first and foremost. Justice and expediency command the law to protect the individual against the State given over to the follies of sectarianism or of pride. “Let the State begin and abolish the death penalty” ought to be our rallying cry today.



One thought on “Social Protest Lit.: Albert Camus’ “Reflections on the Guillotine”

  1. Morality is a skittish thing and widely variable in its interpretation as everyone differs in some way. Let’s presume for the moment that we can relieve our moral guilt and suddenly declare America as “death penalty free”. Who, then, addresses the morality of the victims of crimes? We are a nation of latitudes and platitudes; defined by the very nature of our diverse humanity. I kill, you don’t, yet you get to sit in judgement of whether I live or die, presumably carrying the torch for the victim(s) who are unable to state their case for obvious reasons. On the other hand, I kill, you don’t, yet you get to determine if I am to be incarcerated for what’s left of my eternity… victims be damned, but everyone’s morality is saved.

    I don’t have any answer regarding capital punishment as I don’t see it as morality. My morality enters the picture regarding a legal system that isn’t perfect by any means, condemning to death sometimes unjustly and freeing the guilty with the best defense money can buy. It’s not about justice but about getting you off… if you can afford it. The corruption is not in payoffs but in a system where the pursuit of justice has been exchanged for legal meandering designed to reduce or eliminate your guilt… if you can afford it. If you can’t afford it then justice prevails as a default defense and you throw yourself on the mercy of the court by a marginally effective public defender.

    I sometimes wonder if the removal of capital punishment in this country can be linked to some future policy regarding mental health. After all, we assume that you must have a mental issue if you committed the most heinous crime of the century. Maybe therein rests a solution. But until then, some nutcase blows up a shopping mall and my loved one is a victim I’ll kill him myself, thus relieving your moral convictions regarding State mandated murder.

    I’m not all that sure we can draw some parallel to Mr. Camus’ France at that time to our contemporary debate. I think we still have more murders in this country than executions. About all we can discern from that is that is that capital punishment or not, there’s apparently no deterrent to crime either way.


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