We’ve now arrived at the ninth installment of my ongoing critique of William Lane Craig’s podcast “Richard Dawkins and Driving out the Canaanites.” And you’re thinking to yourself: “Geez, isn’t this overkill? Move on Rauser.” And I’m thinking: “That pun was in poor taste. And I’m not moving on, because there is just so much to criticize in Craig’s 18 minute defense of the slaughter of the Canaanites that I’m falling all over myself trying to identify every troubling issue.”
Hence the ninth installment.
In this article I want to highlight an overlooked problem: ethical evaluation applies not only to whom you kill but also how you kill them. We regularly lower a moral censure on methods of killing that we believe result in cruel and unusual punishment in the ones being killed. And that will be our focus here as I present an argument that the Canaante genocide constitutes an instance of battlefield massacre by untrained soldiers using sub-optimal weaponry which would result in cruel and unusual punishment in extremis.
Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Craig is right in his claim that it would be moral for the Israelite armies to execute the Canaanite infant, child, non-combatant woman, elderly patriarch, and autistic twenty year old man. Of course I don’t grant this and I’ve been at pains to explain why. But my point is that even if we were to grant it, Craig would still face the problem that the way these people were executed is under the most brutal, cruel, inhumane conditions conceivable.
The electric chair as cruel and unusual punishment
Fastforward for the moment to the contemporary age. Let’s say that you have no qualms about executing convicted murderers. It wouldn’t follow that you would believe they could be executed with just any method. You would believe you had a moral obligation to avoid cruel and unusual punishments in their execution. The most merciful and least painful mode of execution would be a moral obligation on the part of the state executing the individual. Then you read this description of death by the electric chair:
“The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands … The prisoner’s limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted … The force of the electric current is so powerful that the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out on his cheeks … The prisoner defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool … Sometimes the prisoner catches fire … There is a sound like bacon frying and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh … when the post-electrocution autopsy is performed the liver is so hot that doctors said it cannot be touched by the human hamd … The body frequently is badly burned …” (Cited in Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking (Vintage, 1993), 19-20.)
Based on that description I think many people would reasonably conclude if we can’t ensure a less painful death by electrocution then we ought not electrocute people. Even if you disagree in this specific case, at least you can (hopefully) agree that the degree of suffering likely to be inflicted upon the victim is a moral consideration when selecting modes of execution.
Now let’s shift to the case of the Canaanites. Here we should note three issues: what is the background context for the slaughter, who is conducting the slaughter, and with what are those individuals conducting the slaughter? Let’s consider each of these questions in turn.
First, what is the background context for the slaughter? In this case the mode of killing is what we might call battlefield massacre. In a battlefield massacre large numbers of people are to be slaughtered in a chaotic, uncontrolled environment in a short period of time. This is completely different from the carefully controlled environment of the electric chair where all the resources are focused on killing a single individual as quickly and humanely as possible (and look at the brutal results of this attempt at humane killing with the best modern technology).
By contrast, in battlefield massacre the goal is a mass slaughter with as much rapidity as possible. Think, by analogy, of the contrast between one chicken being slaughtered in the barn and a factory slaughterhouse with thousands of chickens being slaughtered per hour. How much additional suffering will ensue from the speed and errors that inevitably arise on the factory floor? And by analogy, how much more additional suffering would arise with the quick and dirty killing of a battlefield massacre?
By untrained soldiers
Second, who is conducting the slaughter? According to the Deuteronomic narrative, these are not highly trained soldiers skilled in the art of quick and merciful killing. Rather, they are desert nomads who have grown up in tents and had never fought a battle before. Nor were there any trained military present to teach them how to fight and kill the enemy quickly.
Let’s put this in some context. Imagine that you’re visiting your uncle’s farm for Christmas. You’re sitting on the living room floor with your cousin Dustin playing Monopoly when your uncle comes in the room and says “Dustin, go out back and kill a chicken for dinner.” “You bet pop!” Dustin replies. You follow Dustin out back as he brags about how he’s been killing chickens for years and knows the best way to “do ’em in quick.” Then as you walk into the barn he turns to you with a curious smile and hands you the cleaver. “Hey, you want to do it?” he says.
“Uh uh!” you reply immediately. And for good reason. You’re from the city and you’ve never killed anything more substantial than a fly. Not only would killing the chicken be traumatic for you, but it would be the worst thing for the chicken. You have no idea how to “do ’em in quick” so you can imagine that any chicken that was the target of your meat cleaver would suffer terribly due to your inexperience and clumsiness at killing.
Now drop a rag tag collection of desert nomads who have never fought in a battle before, let alone killed anybody, into a settlement and tell them to kill everyone they find, infants, children, women, the elderly, the lame, mentally handicapped, everybody. How much extra suffering would the victims endure due to the ignorance of the newly minted soldiers on the art of how to “do ’em in quick”?
To note just one example, soldiers who have not yet been desensitized to killing almost inevitably attack with slashing rather than jabbing motions. This is because properly functioning human beings have an innate aversion to direct closed-contact killing through actions like stabbing. Thus the slashing motion is a coping action in which killing is thought to be more indirect and thus more psychologically tolerable. Unfortunately the corollory is that victims tend to receive more superficial wounds which greatly protracts the process of dying and consequently increases the total suffering.
Using sub-optimal weaponry
Third, with what are those individuals conducting the slaughter? Obviously these untrained desert nomads did not have access to the finest and most effective iron age weaponry. Instead, they would have had whatever weapons they could fashion in the desert. And no doubt these would have been relatively crude weapons which would hardly be effective at minimizing the suffering of the victims. Nor is there any suggestion that they were acquiring the weaponry of the Canaanites as each city fell since all the goods of the cities were to be committed to the herem (i.e. destruction). (And even if they had acquired more effective weaponry at a later date, that hardly would mean they knew how to use them.)
Putting the battlefield massacre into context
So to sum up, according to defenders of the Canaanite genocide like William Lane Craig, God commanded that any Canaanites who would be found in the land — including infants, children, women, the physically and mentally handicapped and the elderly — should be subjected to battlefield massacre by untrained soldiers using sub-optimal weapons. The horrors of the electric chair look like a day at the beach when compared to this absolutely terrifying and unimaginably vicious method of annihilating an entire population.
Imagine losing an arm and receiving a deep gash to the scalp and then being left to die on a pile of bodies including your wife and five year old daughter. “At least they’re dead” you think to yourself through the unimaginable pain. But then you hear the unthinkable. Your daughter starts whining and calling out for her daddy. And as your life continues to ebb away, hour after hour, you slowly die to the haunting cries of your daughter.
Consider an account from a real battlefield massacre which was undertaken by untrained soldiers using sub-optimal weaponry. This is an account of the aftermath of one day of killing in Rwanda. In this account Romeo Dallaire reports arriving at the Gikondo Parish Church at the very beginning of the genocide
“Across the street from the mission, an entire alleyway was littered with the bodies of women and children near a hastily abandoned school. As Brent and Stefan were standing there trying to take in the number of bodies, a truck full of armed men roared by. Brent and Stefan decided to head for the church. Stefan went inside while Brent stood by the door to cover him and to keep the APC in sight. They confronted a scene of unbelievable horror–the first such scene UNAMIR witnessed—evidence of the genocide, though we didn’t yet know it call it that. In the aisles and on the pews were the bodies of hundreds of men, women and children. At least fifteen of them were still alive but in a terrible state. The priests were applying first aid to the survivors. A baby cried as it tried to feed on the breast of its dead mother, a sight Brent has never forgotten.” (Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil, 279)
This is what battlefield massacre looks like. It is a bloody, messy and horribly inhumane business. And yet this is the kind of scenario that William Lane Craig believes God commanded, a wholesale battlefield massacre of all residents remaining in Canaan.