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Culture: Killing Tyrants: A Response to Michael Walzer
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Thursday, 07 June 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
History is a punctuated flow of time, the commas are the pauses between regimes- king's reigns and Prime Minister's or President's tenures where the bureacracy continues though the top changes, the metre of the sentence reflects the metre of the period, stuttering through civil war and famine or flowing through peace and prosperity. The place my analogy works best of all though is the significance of the full stops in our historical sentences- the execution and deposition of tyrants. At various points in history- in modern times famously 1649 and 1793- a tyrant is executed and his regime ends with him- of course as we see in Iraq at the moment strife may continue afterwards for a time but like in Iraq whatever happens next is punctuated by what happened before. Even should a King return his dreams are haunted by the spectre of the fate of his decapitated predecessor!

The historical significance of the execution of a tyrant cannot be underrated and all historians would agree on that but is it philosophically justified? Is it right to execute a tyrant? If you support the death penalty- obviously its right to support the execution of a tyrant- after all it would be illogical to beleive in the death penalty for the murder of one person and not to beleive it for the murder of hundreds, thousands or even millions. If you think we should execute Dr Crippin, then executing Adolph Hitler would not disturb you. If you take that position the issue is straightforward- and needs little debate- but what about the opposite position, what about if you don't beleive in the death penalty- should you beleive in the execution of a tyrant.

Michael Walzer, a noted historian and philosopher, beleives that such executions of tyrants are permissable even to someone who doesn't beleive (as he doesn't and as I don't) in the death penalty. He has written a piece in the magazine Dissent, a piece that is well worth reading and of which this article is a partial critique.

Walzer makes a series of arguments and I want to take them in sequence. Firstly he suggests that tyrannicide- the practice of assassinating a tyrant is something that he argues is permissable because a tyrant has effectively set himself in a state of war with his own people. A tyrant has become an enemy of the people to use the French revolutionary phrase and consequently can legitimately be disposed of- his only conversation with his people is conducted through the medium of violence and consequently he has to be disposed of violently.

Walzer brings up another case though he doesn't refer to it where the murder of tyrants is surely allowable- though the case is more difficult. Lets imagine for instance that Louis XIV had been released by the French in 1789, and went abroad only to raise an army outside France to invade. In that case one would imagine that Louis would be a legitimate target of assassination. In the English Civil War soldiers were given orders to shoot to kill at the generals of Royalist armies including the King himself- that would seem to be a sensible proposition for any commander of an opposing force. And there might be points at which for instance a spy abroad would find himself neccessitated to take similar action even when the tyrant in question, though banished, was directly acting against his old country.

But lets eliminate those two cases- lets imagine that the tyrant is in the hands of the new government and festers in prison- is the new government of the state justified in executing him. For example is it right that the Iraqi government executed Saddam even though I disagree with the death penalty. Let me make one further qualification- as in all cases the particular case of Saddam is a matter for that government and not for me as a citizen of another country. Iraq can do what it wants. But lets imagine now that I and you the reader are the people making the decision- should we have the power, despite the fact that we think the death penalty is wrong, to execute Saddam.

Michael Walzer thinks that we do have that right. He argues that basically as the tyrant falls, his law has not fallen with him yet- it persists despite his fall and that he should be judged under his own law, before we abolish it. Because no tyrant in Walzer's view can persist without the death penalty- he thinks he has solved the problem. But I'm not sure he has solved the problem because I'm not sure that as a tyrant falls- his law does not fall with him and therefore that we aren't as theorists in the English revolution beleived catapulted back into a state without law, in which the only law is one's moral presumptions amongst which is that the death penalty is a bad idea.

Lets go further. Professor Walzer imagines that the tyrant's death will be proceeded by his trial. Of course under tyrannical rule there can be no fair trial because ultimately there is no due process applying equally to all persons- it doesn't apply to the tyrant. So consequently the creation of a court which tries the tyrant is an innovation- its the announcement of a new sovereign law- due process as much as the abolition of the death penalty (indeed more so- death penalties exist in non-tyrannical jurisdictions like the US- due process by definition is opposed to tyranny as I've stated above). The beggining of a trial under due process means that the new regime is fully established- so that the law of the old regime cannot be used and the death penalty is invalid.

There are all sorts of practical reasons politically to eliminate a tyrant- many of the executions from Charles I's through to Saddam's have been as much pragmatic actions to alleviate a dangerous situation as theoretical statements. Walzer though is right that this is an interesting political knot to untie- the Jacobin practice of course was to define a claim to tyranny as one to treachery but the conclusions of that in terms of restrictions on free speech and belief are too grand- Walzer's Girondin solution though involves problems about what exactly the status to the trial is- is it the last of the old tyrannical regime, or the first of the new legal regime? Walzer is uncertain due process would suggest that it was part of the new, execution suggests its part of the old.

His argument needs more thought- but he has highlighted an interesting question- and one that given the direction of foreign policy in the West will lead us to need better answers to in the future!