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That Those Who Kill Should Live
On Violence and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
About the author: Ed Watson is a PhD candidate at Yale University, focusing on questions of theology and conceptualization. He is currently working on a dissertation exploring the relationships between Christian talk of grace and racial difference.
One of the horrors of grace is the idea that people who commit evil can be made good. In her book The Dew Breaker, Haitian author Edwidge Danticat tells the story of a barber who had been a torturer under the Duvalier regimes.1 In Haiti, this barber killed and tortured innocents, taking pride in his work. He eventually flees to America with the sister of one of his victims. They marry and have a daughter. Over time he becomes a kind and loving man, burdened only with melancholy guilt. The book offers no evaluation of this fact, but implicitly poses it as a question: is it good that this man should live to become a loving person, without suffering material consequences for his actions?
I’m writing this post the day after a rocket blast killed hundreds in the courtyard of the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, eleven days after Hamas militants killed one thousand and four hundred and kidnapped over two hundred Israeli and international citizens. In those eleven days, Israeli airstrikes killed almost three thousand Palestinians, wounded over twelve thousand, and displaced countless more. In the week or so between my writing and your reading, these numbers will have increased exponentially.
I do not have language for the specificity of each life slain. The numbers are abstractions that make annihilation thinkable by reducing thousands of final moments of breath and fear to bare quantity. But in this space of inexpression, as I try to think of something to write in a theological spirit that could possibly matter while you are reading it, a question has kept insisting on my thoughts: would it be good for those who have killed to live?
Each time this question emerges, it provokes a number of thoughts. My first thought is that the question itself is monstrous. Whatever one’s stance on the conflict, almost all will agree that it is those who have been killed and those who will be killed that deserve attention and compassion. The slain of Israel deserve commemoration; the slain of Palestine deserve to be named, their stories told and their lives recognized as lives which matter. Those kidnapped deserve freedom. The main reason for stopping the conflict is to protect innocent lives; the stated reason for fighting is to preserve innocent lives. In each case, it is the dead and vulnerable who deserve to be valued, not those who threaten them. Asking whether those who kill should live implies a care that those who kill without restraint no longer deserve. Indeed, raising the question of these lives evokes all the ways that Christian calls for forgiveness have been used to paper over realities of violence and accountability.
A second thought is that there is no world where the survival of those who kill can be good, because there is no world in which killing will not continue. There is too much hate, too much pain, too much trauma, all of which are produced by realities that there is no political will to change. At the most widespread level, there are persistent realities of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. These are independent motives for violence. They can drive murder apart from specific political situations and they can be articulated with political realities to add an impenetrable righteousness to slaughter. In more concrete terms, as long as Palestinians are made to live under apartheid conditions, as long as Palestinians are dispossessed of their land and refused sovereignty in the places they have lived for generations—as long as Palestinians live under everyday and persistent violence, then further violence against Israel will be begotten. As long as Israeli citizens feel that they live under the threat of violence, meanwhile, then policies of apartheid and repression will continue to garner democratic support. As long as Jewish people worldwide are given reason to hold that realities of anti-Semitism are not taken seriously, violence will be seen as the only defense. These are empirical, not moral claims. As long as they remain true, coexistence without killing is impossible.
A third thought is that those who have killed will not change. Even if these political realities were to be dissolved, there are those who would continue in self-justifying violence. This, at least, is a lesson of history. Defeated Confederates did not change after the American Civil War; they rallied and transformed the basis of white power through terrorist violence and political segregation. Defeated imperial powers did not abandon their colonizing mindsets after the European empires fell; they sought a different kind of imperialism, one grounded in global economy rather than military occupation.
A final thought is that it would be unjust for those who kill to live. Someone who deliberately kills a child, whether with a pistol or a drone, should not go on to live a happy life, even and especially if this life turns them into someone who could never kill again. Those who gleefully celebrate the genocide of another people should not go on to live in peace, even and especially if this peace reveals to them the unconscionable horror of that slaughter. The thought is that those who have done evil do not deserve to be good; that even if this transformation were possible in reality as well as hope, those who have done evil would not deserve the peace that comes with change. Those who have been killed deserve justice; those who have killed deserve punishment; those who would be killed deserve to live.
Each of these thoughts is a version of my own. I am not writing them out as positions held by others less enlightened; I am writing them out because they express my own instinctive reactions to this insistent question, of whether those who kill should live. At a gut level, this question feels monstrous, impossible, and unjust.
Why, then, does the question keep insisting? I think it is because the conviction that those who kill should be killed is what ensures that the realities that make this question monstrous will continue to arise. Violence is generated by occupation; it is generated by the continued threat of violence. And it is the conviction that those who commit evil deserve death that ensures this cycle continues and intensifies. It is the conviction that those who kill should be killed that keeps the cycle of horror in place, ensuring that the political realities which frame this cycle will not be dissolved.
I am conscious of writing as a Western Christian in relation to a conflict between predominantly Jewish and Muslim peoples. I am conscious that Christian anti-Semitism and Islamophobia course through the veins of this conflict. I am also conscious that Christians are embroiled in the conflict in both Israel and Gaza, and that many Western Christians emphatically support continued bombardment. So I write with caution when I say that one of the horrors of grace is that those who have done evil can be made good. I do not use this word “horror” metaphorically, and I do not gesture towards grace as an idealistic salve for real suffering. To hope that those who commit true evil might be transformed to their own benefit is an unjust and unrealistic hope. For the Christianity I recognize in my faith, it is nonetheless a hope bound up in Paul’s assertion that the last enemy to be defeated is death—not in the sense of the end of life, but in the sense of claiming a right to the power to kill. To defeat death in this sense means forswearing the power to kill. And this means holding that those who have killed should live, even and especially if it means that they live into a loving peace undeserved.
Would it be good for those who kill to live? As things stand, it is probably impossible for the answer to this question to be “yes.” But killing will retain the force of power as long as the answer remains “no.” And so the impossible must be made possible. It must come to pass that those who kill should live, along with those who would be killed. Conditions must be changed to make this possible, not as a matter of bare life, but in fullness and flourishing. Otherwise, the powers of justice and possibility will continue to be given over to killing and death.
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Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker (New York: Vintage, 2005).