U.S. Drone Strike Murders & Capital Punishment(s)

Excerpt One, from my book, The Executed God.

My publisher, Fortress Press, has agreed to allow me to post segments of the forthcoming new edition of my book, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (due out November 1). These posts will be altered a bit for appearing here at my website, with some deletions and even additions made here. Please know that these advance postings will look a bit differently, and have the benefit of context, when read within the argument of the whole book. This segment from the book speaks to current discussion of U.S. policies – especially under Obama – to carry out drone-strike assassinations. This is from a new chapter of the book on the theme of “the state that kills” – a chapter that is entitled “Building Peoples’ Movements 2: Abolishing Capital Punishment(s).” Photo above right in article: the lethal injection table, Huntsville, TX. 

Unfortunately, even if the death rows in the U.S. were completely emptied out, and the death penalty definitively abolished, there are signs that the state could still very well maintain and display its claimed “right to kill” by simply transferring its execution function to other modes of state violence. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, drone strikes in the U.S., carried out by state officials who claim to have carefully vetted” the charges against someone, thereby justifying the strikes against Americans on the U.S. mainland.

In fact, this has already happened abroad, where U.S. citizens[1] were assassinated by drone strikes and the Obama administration defended these killings. These U.S. lethal strikes were provided legal justifications by State Department legal counsel Harold Koh and others, holding that these were acts of “‘lawful’ extrajudicial killing.”[2] To murder citizens in this way—even without trial—amounts not only to a de facto maintenance of capital punishment, but also is a development of more rogue versions of the state’s claimed right to kill. In these alternative modes of state killing, the state displays both the historical staying power and extensive social function of the death penalty.

Not surprisingly, then, European and U.S. political thought have rationalized the state’s death penalty as integral to and necessary for its entire system of law. Indeed, Immanuel Kant, as prominent an Enlightenment figure as you can get, argued just this about the death penalty. Kant saw the death penalty as the law most needed to guard human dignity, and argued it is necessary as the ultimate justification of both justice and the law. Being “punished with death” is so necessary a response to “the killing of any person contrary to the law” that Kant presented the death penalty as having an orienting comprehensiveness for all law, as “the categorical imperative of penal justice.”[3] This position, articulated by a thinker routinely still viewed as among the greatest of European Enlightenment philosophers, remains foundational in the U.S. state.[4] This suggests, again, that the death penalty cannot be challenged simply on the moral claims for or against it as a distinctive statute, but must be discussed, and challenged, in relation to the broader question of the state’s right to kill and the death penalty’s justification as “the categorical imperative of penal justice.”[5]

Because of this importance of the death penalty, Walter Benjamin viewed resistance to it as one of the most comprehensive challenges to state rule. His understanding of this resistance goes well beyond the liberal, reformist viewpoint that the legal system is basically fine but the death penalty is barbaric and can be excised from that system without jeopardizing it as a whole. In his essay, “Critique of Violence,” Benjamin argues, “an attack on capital punishment assails not legal measure, not laws, but law itself in its origin.” Law and the legal system, he continues, are rooted in that place of origin where there occurs “the highest violence, that over life and death.”

Benjamin adds even more tellingly that the death penalty is not only or even primarily “to punish the infringement of law but to establish new law.”[6] The “new law,” he means, is the always needed “new” assertion of the state’s legitimacy, of its sovereignty through violence,its power to kill. In this way the state reasserts, in the words of Judith Butler, the binding character of all law “and so repeats the founding act [of violence] in a regulated way.”[7]

U.S.-America’s founding violence is evident on its mainland in racialized police murders, primarily against black life. In the carceral state of the U.S., this is an assassination policy, the policy now being on display in the recently-leaked “Drone Papers.” Drone strike assassinations have been carried out against U.S. citizens abroad.

Imagine the Drone Strikes at home – say, against a poor man or woman at the corner of Wyoming and Fenkel in Detroit – a capital punishment by today’s penal state (punishment in the name of Capital against the poor). This could well be our future, bringing about another phase of the convergence that James Baldwin referred to as “this grisly pattern” wherein “what America is doing within her borders, she is doing around the world” (Baldwin, No Name in the Street, The Dial Press, 1972, page 86).

But maybe – people of conscience and of the liberating spirit of justice will take back the state from today’s “state that kills.” Maybe.


[1] On the drone strike killings of Americans Anwar Al-Awlaki, and later his 16 year-old U.S.-born son, Abdul Rahman, see Spencer Ackerman, “How Obama Transformed an Old Military Concept So He Can Drone Americans,” February 5, 2013, online at The Wired.

[2] David E. Sanger, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret War and Surprising Use of Power (New York: Broadway, 2013), 257. See also 255-67.

[3] See Jacques Derrida, The Death Penalty, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 9. Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 109. Kant allows for exceptions to applying the death penalty for certain murders. On the tortured logic in justifying these exceptions while still holding to the death penalty as the “categorical imperative for penal justice,” see Derrida, 123-28.

[4] I recall well a debate on the death penalty at Princeton University. The case for affirming capital punishment was being argued by a visiting Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney, Hugh Burns. At one point, when to my mind he was losing the debate badly, he simply resorted to a forceful assertion, invoking a vaguely sensed precept: “the state has the right to kill!”

[5] Indeed, one can also question the point of challenging the state’s right to punish. See Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection, Oxford World’s Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009 [1899]), 341,450-51.

[6] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence” (1921), in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 242 (emphasis added). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 242 (emphasis added).

[7] Judith Butler, “Critique, Coercion, and Sacred Life in Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’,” in Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 201-219.

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