The power to kill

Guest column: Oskar Wermeter SJ

Why do policemen carry weapons as part of their uniform? Is there any military reason why soldiers are armed with guns, even if they are not threatened by armed robbers or enemies of the State, in an altogether peaceful situation?

It is a question of power. Women enjoy respect and their own kind of feminine authority, because they give birth to children and build up the family. They give life. But they have no power like men. Only men hold power because of their peculiar relationship to death. Real power, men have believed since time immemorial, is based on the power to take life and send the victim into the land of shadows. Women have no power and little status in society, because they do not kill. At least that was the mind of our ancestors in ancient times.

A woman has no sword. She does not prove herself by carrying death-dealing weapons. But man is only confirmed in his manhood if he has the power to kill. He can only be a ruler over land and people if he is lord and master over life and death, so ancient society decreed.

Men traditionally were associated with killing and death as hunters, butchers, warriors and executioners. Women had no such vocation, they had no sword or spear or dagger, and were subject to men. But the easy availability of guns, even automatic weapons, in the United States has revived this myth. And once you own a gun, you also want to prove your manhood by randomly slaughtering defenceless students, teachers or anybody else in “drive-past shootings”.

For rulers, or the State which they lead, to give up the power to kill and execute capital punishment was equivalent to losing power and being reduced to a very low rank. They also lost the ability to defend their populations from criminals and lawless brigands. They would be accused of allowing crime to gain the upper hand and becoming allies of perpetrators of violence.

This is the reason why people, until the present day, are convinced that the death penalty guarantees their security: where the State has the power to take the life of a criminal and destroy him physically, criminality will be reduced and shedding the blood of a gangster will stop the blood of citizens from flowing freely. Or so the common person thinks.

At the same time citizens, seeing how the State uses the rope or the guillotine or injection of poison, will be motivated to use these same lethal weapons in their own private conflicts, and their community or society will be excessively violent. What the State does in large measure, the individual will copy in his own smaller skirmishes with rivals or opponents, resulting in fewer victims and less blood shed. The power of the State to kill will spread violence and bloodshed.

From a moral point of view, the execution of criminals by organs of the State is also questionable: the State in many parts of our world is the greatest killer and murderer itself. Who commits genocide and slaughters people in huge numbers if not the State through “the forces of law and order”?

Totalitarian and oppressive regimes kill in the name of State power and in defence of often absurdly unjust laws and rules. As an example, we may remember “apartheid” South Africa, the excessive number of victims in civil wars in the Congo, Sudan, Angola and other parts of Africa fighting colonial oppression. History teaches us about the huge number of citizens of the Soviet Union, Germany under Adolf Hitler and Cambodia that were liquidated by power-obsessed tyrants, or dictatorial regimes in Latin America, that were assaulted by the US.

The war between the United States and Japan could only be stopped, so we are told, by the American superpower unleashing for the first time nuclear bombs, which killed in one single blow 200 000 people in 1945. “In the face of this excessive killing power the Japanese nation capitulated”.


The decision to use armed violence in political, for instance, colonial and economic conflicts has left us a legacy of unstoppable violence far beyond the official end of the actual “war of liberation” (Chimurenga) and led to a fierce post-independence war against civilians (Gukurahundi). The habit of striking at the civilian population with uncontrolled fury makes the military a mobile slaughterhouse to be used as a political weapon for intimidation and terror.

The Constitution of this country demands of Zimbabweans deep respect for human life and human dignity. The execution of criminals and murderers is not likely to bring about such a fundamental change of mentality and moral transformation. The State lacking respect for human life, as evident in crime, road carnage, the avenging of murder in traditional society, the abuse of lethal weapons in public violence and the use of capital punishment, are likely to lead to even more bloodshed and the wasting of lives in our society. What we need is a different education of young and old equally, as regards the sanctity of life in our society.

“We have reached a killing potential (‘Overkill’), which is capable of annihilating all human life, exceeding the conventional power of destruction 30 times”. This cannot be eliminated by opposing forces fielding even more destructive armoury and armies, but only by a collective learning process in our country about the infinitely precious value of our own lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters, our children and grandchildren.

We must learn to see the destruction of life with new eyes. This will depend on our concept of the divine “hidden power” (Vat II, ‘Nostra Aetate’) or “power in relationship” which is a definition of our “God who is Love”.

The divinity is not divine because of its excessive power to kill and destroy (an ancient idea still believed in), but because of the presence of love and mercy and the ability to care for fellow human beings, especially in the creative mother-and-child relationship, which is the origin of humankind. Our Lord and Creator does not try to show his power in killing and destruction. Death is not where his divine being is manifested. The divinity, that hidden power and strength of relationship, shows itself where human relationships, love and community flourish most.

This is the rebirth of respect for human life among us. This is where woman, if she is devoted to her children in caring love, prevails over man and his obsession with death and killing (see TV and video violence).

Oskar Wermter is a clergy and social commentator. He writes in his own capacity.

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