Christopher Hitchens: Pro-War, Anti-Death Penalty

A few days ago, Corey Robin wondered on his Facebook status:

Something I never understood about Christopher Hitchens: how such a fervent opponent of the death penalty could be such an avid supporter of war.

Supporters of the death penalty, of course, are notoriously fond of war (they also tend to be ‘pro-life’ in the debate on abortion). But why would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may, I think, be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

The death penalty, in sharp and instructive contrast, is almost uniformly grubby and sordid. It is underwritten by retribution, an ignoble business at best; it is wrapped up in tedious layers of penal codes, legal wrangling, and procedural disputes; it happens quietly and grimly, away from the public eye, the punishment that dare not  speak its name. All associated with it are diminished; the condemned have lost their human dignity well before they ascend the gallows, the jailers and clergymen and executioners appear merely as bureaucratic functionaries, executing–no pun intended–with nary a trace of flair or style, the bookish orders laid out in the court document sanctioning the killing. There is no glamour, no sheen, no gleaming edges in the death penalty. It is dull, dull, dull. Especially in this guillotine-free age.

If the death penalty could have been lifted, somehow, out of the unappealing morass of state bureaucracy, judicial procedure, and clumsy modes of execution, if it could somehow have brought with it some of the frisson that war provides, then I do not doubt that Hitchens would have been all for it.

Note: One should also not forget that Hitchens considered himself a contrarian. Perhaps his opposition to the death penalty was formed at a time when public support for it ran high; his support of the Iraq War was probably viewed by him as a gleeful flipping of the bird to his former mates on the Left.

5 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens: Pro-War, Anti-Death Penalty

  1. I don’t think it’s fair to characterise Hitchen’s position as contrarian. His support for military intervention goes back long before the Iraq War, as far as the Falklands and possibly before. It’s one of the few consistent threads in his thought, one that you correctly diagnose as romantic. And I wonder how much that was influenced by his relationship with his military father.

    It’s also interesting to note that Hitchens was pro-life.

  2. I find this article very unfair. First, the death penalty assumes rights over men that no one should have, no man, no state. Secondly the war – that Hitchens supported long before it begun – could be argued was a moral obligation of the west that put Saddam into his position at the first place. While Hitchens supported the removal of Saddam, he was not supporting the “war” per se, and yes, he was pro life. Very much so.

  3. Hello Corey, Thanks for the interesting post. I only came across Christopher Hirchens very recently, sadly after his death, so I have only read and listened to him a short while. Even so, I believe that his support of war and his wish to abolish the death penalty come from the same philosophy: he was starkly against totalitarianism. I think he believed that we must fight totalitarian regimes (often religious governments) of the world to stamp out intolerance and and neglect of human rights, and with the same line of thought believed that the death penalty must be smilarily stamped out because a government that seeks capital punishment (which he often referred to as human sacrifice:) is imposing a totalitarian relationship to its people by declaring control over your life and death.
    These two points, taking a life in war and taking a life for justice, does seem to be opposing and even hipocritical if you support one and not the other, but I think for Hitchen this augument wasn’t about being against/for killing but about the dangers of a system to be greater than the individual.

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