Deadly Devices: Animals, Capital Punishment,
and the Scope of Sovereignty
Tennyson’s agonizing line—“Nature red in tooth and claw”—tends,
especially in these days of world-wide human carnage, to make one
see the whole animal kingdom with blood-dripping claws and jaws. But
it is not so.… Nature as seen in animal life is sanguinary, but only
man is cruel.
— JOHN BORROUGHS, North American Review, October 1918
Can animals be sentenced to death? Can they be assassinated, or become victims of genocide? Certainly in our common parlance, these dubious rights are reserved for man; murder, assassination, genocide, and the death penalty are proper to man alone. Even in death, we insist upon separating ourselves from the animals. Yet our practices suggest otherwise. Animals are regularly killed for “crimes” committed against humans. For example, recently in Switzerland a swan was killed for trying to drown a swimmer by sitting on him; and dogs are regularly “put down” if they are considered dangerous. Unlike humans, however, usually animals are not subjects of the law and therefore are not entitled to a fair trial. But, as we will see, this was not always the case.
In For What Tomorrow, Derrida describes the death penalty as the “weld” or “cement” that holds together Western traditions of religion, philosophy, and politics—in other words, everything that is taken to be “proper to man.”