I didn’t think they really would kill Troy Davis. Surely, the worldwide campaign to spare his life would impress someone in Georgia. Surely, the Supreme Court would stop the process, once they’d delayed it. Surely, the work of the Innocence Project had raised enough awareness of the presence of innocent people on Death Row.
When I heard that they’d murdered him, after all, at 11:08 p.m. on Tuesday, I wept. I’m sure some of you readers did too. It is not true, as one of Davis’s nephews told Amy Goodman, that “we are all Troy Davis.” People like Goodman and me – white people blessed with education and elevated above poverty – are almost certain never to land on Death Row. Nor do I want to appropriate the grief of the people who knew Davis and loved him. And yet, tears of grief and rage seemed the only possible response to a rotten, festering system that committed homicide against a man whose only crime appears to have been being black in the wrong place on the wrong night.
All that is to say that I have no desire to over-intellectualize the murder of Davis. At the same time, I’ve been re-reading parts of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for a class I’m teaching. The first section of the book, aptly titled “Torture,” describes in excruciating detail pre-modern ways of punishing criminals. A man is drawn and quartered. Foucault forces us to look. Then he spends the rest of the book analyzing how the king’s power to maim bodies and take life has been supplanted in the modern era by the bureaucratic state’s ability to micro-regulate us through surveillance and, ultimately, self-surveillance, shaping docile bodies. We are disciplined, and we discipline ourselves. We are subjected to normalization, and we learn to conform to the norms. Modern techniques of power are all the more effective because they are subtle – and they are no longer confined to prohibiting behaviors. Where power had been merely repressive, it now has the ability to elicit behaviors, attitudes, identities, and reality itself:
We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. (189)
Foucault is surely right about the productive and proliferative aspects of modern power. But doesn’t he present a false dichotomy here? While European countries have abandoned capital punishment, the techniques of power in the United States remain deeply invested in repression. Of course, all of the productive aspects of power are in full swing here, too – often commingled with more repressive techniques, as in TSA routines that elicit docility. At the same time, torture is undergoing a renaissance. The spirit of Abu Ghraib courses through our polity.
As Troy Davis waited for nearly four hours while the Supreme Court took one last glance at his case, he was strapped to a gurney with the lethal needle already in his arm. That’s a form of torture that would have pleased the most bloodthirsty pre-modern tyrant. It would have warmed the heart of a postbellum Southern lynch mob. Without being naive about the more subtle forms of modern power, isn’t it time we renounced state-sponsored murder?
(Posted by a bunch of my Facebook friends, attributed to Randall Horton)