Authority and State Terror

by Daniel Hartley

Ronnie Lee Gardner

On Friday the state of Utah murdered the convicted killer, Ronnie Lee Gardner. Gardner, having lived by the gun, chose to die by it – by firing squad. When I first read about this I had an image in mind of Gardner stood against some sort of pole in a yard with a lone gunman-executioner positioned before him, face-to-face. I imagined maybe a single point-blank shot to the head.

In fact it wasn’t like that at all. Gardner was strapped to a chair inside a small room – designed one imagines by family-loving, God-fearin’ architects – a target was placed over his heart by a doctor, and five gunmen shot him from behind a wall with two slots in, just large enough for the rifles to shoot through. Gardner could not see his murderers, and their identities were not revealed to the public for ‘fear of reprisals.’

A further detail of note is this from The Guardian:

Four of the rifles were loaded with a single live bullet. The fifth contained an “ineffective” round – which unlike a blank gives the same recoil as a live round; that way none of the five executioners know whether they delivered the fatal shot, thus lessening their psychological burden.

I want to say two very simple things about this event. The first is that those who accuse this method of being ‘barbaric’ are somewhat missing the point: it is simultaneously the most barbaric and the most civilized of punishments. What do I mean by this? Firstly, the reason five men were chosen to kill Gardner is not for the simple pragmatic reason that if one or two miss the target then the other two might hit it. It is because the authority of the state cannot be seen to reside in one man alone. It must remain multiple, so as to avoid any personalising lex talonis. If capital punishment is part of the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ logic, then the state, at least, should be the final communal mutilator of the offending eye, beyond which the cycle of revenge can move no further. Secondly, the men remain anonymous because state authority has to appear anonymous. State authority cannot appear to favour any single person or faction or class. When the media broadcast images of the wall from behind which the men shot Gardner, they were effectively broadcasting the anonymity that power in a ‘civilized’ world requires to function and to reproduce itself.

The second point refers to the ‘ineffective’ fifth bullet. If ever there were an example that might suggest to hardcore pragmatic-empiricist social observers (i.e. those for whom theory or psychoanalysis or any other vaguely abstract method of ratiocination is airy-fairy bullshit) that there is more to social reality than immediately observable data, then this is it. If society functioned via pragmatism alone, then one man would have been given a gun, he would have stood in front of Gardner, and blown his head off. Pragmatism does not result in the building of a wall with two slots in it to mask five gunmen, one of whom – but no one knows whom exactly – will fire a blank. The official reason for this practice is ‘to lessen the burden of guilt’. This might hold water, if it weren’t for the fact that the gunmen volunteered to execute Gardner. It is unlikely that a policeman, trained to kill, who chooses to murder a criminal will suddenly be ravaged by a guilty conscience having done so.

The only convincing way the fifth bullet can be explained is via some form of the psychoanalytic Big Other. I don’t know enough Lacan to go into this in detail, but it strikes me as fairly obvious that the purpose of the fifth bullet is to transport the execution from the empirical realm of individuals to the pseudo-transcendent, transindividual realm of the Other. It makes the cause of death strictly indiscernible and therefore irreducible to the actions of specific humans. The gunmen themselves do not know who killed Gardner, and precisely in their ignorance is located Authority. It is the same Authority embedded in the white-washed, anonymous walls.

It is this terrifying Authority – terrifying because not residing in specific, challengeable human beings – that must be defied at all costs so long as it constitutes the life-blood of state terror.