Shoot the cannibals on sight.

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The Churchill Effect on 'The Walking Dead'

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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This week I continue my ethical analysis of survival after the zombie apocalypse, by way of “The Walking Dead,” with -- fair warning! -- spoilers aplenty.

In Sunday night’s episode, after Gareth and his merry band of cannibals walk into the entirely predictable trap the good guys have laid for them (how exactly did they survive so long?), Rick and his party execute them on the spot. With rare exception, this process -- known as summary execution -- is forbidden under international law. Of course, international law has no application after the apocalypse. So let’s think only about the ethical considerations.

First, let’s agree that in a certain sense Rick has no choice. There aren’t any courts, and there aren’t any prisons. Gareth and his followers kill and consume human beings and, whatever the complications of their history, can no longer plead necessity as a defense. Even should Gareth keep his promise to leave Rick and his people alone, the cannibals, as Rick points out, will sooner or later eat someone else. So the executions can be justified as a preventive measure.

On the other hand, there is the matter of the means of execution. Rick, not wanting to waste ammunition, kills Gareth with Michonne’s sword. The other cannibals are quite savagely beaten to death. Their executions, in other words, are painful and gruesome. This might be simply vengeance speaking, in which case the ethics are troubling. But I’d like to suggest an alternative under which the torturous killings -- in the unique situation of the post-apocalyptic world -- might be, if not entirely ethical, certainly rational.

And it has nothing to do with saving bullets.

Let’s go back to World War II. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, along with his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, argued for summary execution of top Nazi leaders on the ground that the Nazis, through their actions, had placed themselves outside the reach of law. Churchill proposed to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that the Allies agree on a list of those who, if captured, would not be held for trial but would be killed forthwith. At one point, Churchill even advocated proceeding without so much as a drumhead court-martial. Instead, commanders would be instructed to act as soon as they obtained positive identification of the accused.

Reason, not vengeance, was behind the British proposal. The war cabinet, along with leading members of Parliament, contended that the U.S. demand for unconditional surrender would serve only to strengthen German resolve. Defeat under those terms would mean potential punishment for all who supported the regime, not just the leaders, and could therefore prolong the war. If, on the other hand, all the Germans knew that only certain officials, names announced in advance by the Allies, were subject to summary execution, they might rise up and slay their own leaders to spare their country whatever burdens might otherwise follow the Allied victory. In other words, the purpose of the British plan (which was never adopted) was to create the right mix of incentives.

How does this relate to the decision to sentence the cannibals a painful execution rather than an easy one? In a post-apocalyptic world in which the imminence of sudden death is an everyday worry, it’s quite possible that the death penalty alone would do little to deter. Deep down, people would expect to die, and soon. Therefore threatening to kill them probably would make little difference in their conduct.

This would seem to be particularly true if, as some theorists argue, the deterrent effect of a possible death sentence is a function in part of how long the individual in question expects to live. Executing the young, for example, would typically deter more murders than executing the old: The young have more life to lose. But in a society in which expected mortality is very high, the relative loss to any individual by execution would be small.

If one accepts this admittedly controversial theory, then it is a very small jump to the proposition that if the fact of death is an insufficient deterrent, the manner of death might be. Rick, in other words, could believe quite rationally that a quick bullet through the head would be insufficient for Gareth, not because Gareth “deserves” a harder death, but because an easier death might inadequately deter future cannibals or others who might, in some other fashion, break the human bond completely.

In short, there is perfectly plausible case to be made that Rick, like Churchill, got the incentives right. And if Rick’s killings were more gruesome than the firing squads Churchill probably envisioned, it’s only because, in a post-apocalyptic world, they had to be. I’m not arguing that there the collapse of institutional authority would mean that no ethical considerations apply. I’m only suggesting that in the narrow circumstances the writers presented, there’s a rational argument in favor of Rick’s decision.

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