- There is a world in which the state claims and exercises the right to kill people after due process conviction for a crime; but no state official is ever killed.
- There is a world in which the state disavows capital punishment, but state officials can and, sometimes, do get assassinated.
- Which, in your view, is the better world? Where would you choose to live?
I tell them that fence-sitting is not acceptable; they have to pick one side. There is, of course, no “right answer; and I’ve seen a variety of responses and rationales over the years. I was struck with the responses from this year’s group and I’m looking forward to our discussion of their positions next week. While it’s typical that there is a slight leaning towards the second choice, this year was more sharply skewed in that direction. Moreover, what really hit me was the toleration/acceptance of public assassination in many responses. One clear sentiment was that the possibility of assassination would be a corrective to or punishment for public corruption and (implicitly) would improve the effectiveness and responsiveness of government. Indeed, in some papers, there was a sense that assassination could be justified for corruption or malfeasance.
More fundamentally, the responses seemed to be based on a deep disconnection with the idea that the government is representative of society and that society therefore has a stake in a stable and effective state (not to mention any virtue to be generically associated with public service). I suspect this reflects many young people’s disenchantment with how government works. Issues of discrimination, climate, bureaucratic inertia, and being captive of elites were part of many of these responses.
One issue implicit in this position is an acceptance of punishment without due process. Those who opted for the retention of the death penalty often stressed this aspect as limiting the downsides of the death penalty, but those who opposed the death penalty seemed to think that even if assassins were the opposite of “justice,” that the resulting deaths were an acceptable price to avoid the manifest injustice of how our society administers the death penalty. In addition, there was no expression of concern that assassination was, effectively, a random act, without any substantive connection with either the policies or integrity of the victim.
It's possible that the relative absence of political assassination in recent decades has made the concept seem abstract and distant from reality. Perhaps those of us who lived through two Kennedy assassinations and the shooting of Ronald Reagan inherently take a different view. While it seems that death threats against public officials are on the rise, few a publicized and fewer get to the point of action or prosecution and so are pretty much out of our consciousness. No one would have been surprised if there had been a serious attempt on the life of Obama or Trump, but there wasn’t and so our collective memory of the shock may have faded, especially for those who barely remember even the Trump years.
Still, rather than criticizing “today’s youth” for insensitivity and nihilism, it may be well to reflect on the world as they see it.
For one thing, the practical problems of the death penalty (most recently seen in Alabama last month), the clear racial disparities in the administration of justice in the US, as well as the well-recognized fundamental moral questions of state-sanctioned murder make this practice easy to reject. The relative rarity of the assassination of public officials reduces its apparent societal cost, so perhaps the trade-off is not so cut-and-dried.
Second, as I have noted previously, there are many reasons for despair among young folks today, often attributable to the inaction of government (at least as the instrument of a stultified, self-satisfied, and hypocritical society). I didn’t ask my students about “revolution,” (see next week’s posting), but I suspect that much of the same motivation that manifested in the answers to their assignment this week would show up in that context as well. They may be looking for some way to “shake things up,” and this discontent and frustration with the status quo may have emerged in their acceptance of the risk of assassination in these essays.
Now, my challenge in the classroom is to steer the focus back to history and, in particular, to the 18C and the challenges facing the country in the aftermath of the American Revolution. This class is about writing a constitution and the quandaries and trade-offs inherent in the essay assignment this week will be multiplied when they face the issues present in Philadelphia in 1787. How much they can maintain the rather different mindset of the (elite, White, male) Enlightenment world (as compared with the diversity of Californians born mostly in the 21C remains to be seen.
In the end, I’m heartened by the evidence of the struggle many of these students faced in responding to the prompt, regardless of their particular answers. It bodes well for the course and for them.