Cornell University Press

Denials About the Death Penalty

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As I wrote in the preface of my book, Hiding the Guillotine, published by Cornell in November, the United States and France have acted like competitive siblings, vying with each other to carry the universalist torch of the Enlightenment and to influence the course of international politics. 

These two countries also share a very ambiguous relationship with capital punishment. Hiding the Guillotine examines the question of State involvement in violence by tracing the evolution of public executions in France, where its very existence and modalities were never really explained to the population. The death penalty is an old chastisement: while important enough to remain in the punitive arsenal, it remains quite obscure today, almost as if pedagogical work on it takes the risk of highlighting and dismissing it. The question of the death penalty often crystallizes on the stake of its abolition or its retention, and the “debate” turns always around the same arguments, which, for some, have been disputed for two centuries ago…

The death penalty is an old chastisement: while important enough to remain in the punitive arsenal, it remains quite obscure today, almost as if pedagogical work on it takes the risk of highlighting and demising it.

However, the death penalty should not be reduced to the discussions surrounding it, because it involves various other elements: technical elements, which define the choice and the “efficiency” of the execution mode, medical considerations on pain and strong emotions of the accused’s, his or her family’s and the victims’, concerns about the fairness of the trial, philosophical analysis on State power to abbreviate a citizen’s life, and of course, reflections on the necessity to show the death penalty, or not. 

Even in France and the US, while the display of this State violence was legal until the mid-twentieth century, it was very limited. French writers, such as Victor Hugo and other newspaper journalists, stressed how the State was ashamed of showing the guillotine. They were surprised that a punishment presented as “exemplary,” “deterrent,” and “edifying” was not performed in broad light, on the main square of the city, photographed or filmed for the people’s benefit. Rather, “shame” was the most recurrent word to express the link between justice and this punishment. All over France, guillotines were built far from residential areas, near the prisons, and it was in the heart of darkness that the condemned were killed. Furthermore, filming the execution was forbidden, as if its gloomy shadow should not extend beyond the death ceremony itself.

All over France, guillotines were built far from residential areas, near the prisons, and it was in the heart of darkness that the condemned were killed.

In nineteenth and twentieth-century France, an “ordinary” execution attracted four or five thousand spectators, most of them too far away to see anything. It’s almost the same situation in the US, even if the gallows was up for all to see. One must wonder if the State is not completely hypocritical when it lets its people think that the death penalty effect is powerful when in reality, only a few people see the execution. In France, execution publicity was eventually suppressed in 1939, and it was permanently abolished by President Mitterrand and the left in 1981.

The death penalty is not just the remains of a collective violence nor a revenge made by the State. Above all, it is the result of ignorance.

For people in the past, and also today, the death penalty remains very mysterious. It seems more a “condemnation” at the end of a trial than an “act” of killing. In this way, the given death is also a denied death, not seen and not known. The death of the other must remain hidden. What do young French people really know of a punishment so old? What images pop in their minds when the death penalty is evoked? I criticized a recent poll claiming that fifty-five percent of the French people were in favor of a death penalty that they have not been familiar with for forty years. Is the reality of this punishment clearer for a young American? The death penalty is not just the remains of collective violence nor revenge made by the State. Above all, it is the result of ignorance.

November 18th, 2020.

*Photo by Charles Deluvio.


Emmanuel Taïeb is Professor of Political Science and Historical Sociology at Sciences Po Lyon, in France. Visit his website.

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