Friday, December 16, 2016
On a "License to Kill"
The people that I know who are licensed to kill are maddeningly obtuse about the exercise of that privilege. Once, a Navy Seal friend of mine suggested we buy some booze at a crowded liquor store near Lake and Chicago. There was a noisy queue at the cash register, most of the people drunk and disorderly, hooting at one another as they waited to exchange greasy 20 dollar bills for packs of malt liquor. I suggested to my friend that he execute a few of the people ahead of us or, at least, brandish his silencer-equipped 9 mm short-magazine Walther to speed things along. My friend sniffed at me disdainfully and said that would be an abuse of power.
A couple years later, I represented a CIA operative in a divorce. On the way to Court, we ran into a traffic jam and a guy driving a pickup truck with double Vikings flags waving gaily in the wind cut in ahead of us. I suggested to my client that he gun down the offending motorists. He unholstered his .50 Smith & Wesson and fired twice, shooting off the antennae to which the purple pennants were attached, but refused to kill the driver of the pick-up. "What is the use of a license to kill," I asked, "if you can’t use it?" The CIA agent winked at me and said that, maybe, he should execute the Judge and the opposing lawyer in his case. "The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers," he said. "Present company excepted?" I asked. He nodded. At the Courthouse, there were motions and counter-motions, arguments and counter-arguments but no one was shot.
The idea of the "license to kill" as a warrant to murder adversaries of a State-sanctioned and covert mission arises in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. The concept is mentioned in Fleming’s first book, Casino Royale and, later, in his second novel, Live and Let Live. Bond says that the license is one that is retroactively granted to excuse past homicides. In Casino Royale, he says that the "00" nomenclature means that he has been granted official immunity for two prior killings – each "0" representing one authorized homicide. Bond explains that the 0 "mean(s_ that you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of an assignment." In later books, the idea that the "license to kill" can be granted only retroactively is blurred and, by this time, the lonely 7 in Bond’s ID number is now at the tail of an enormous number of zeroes. Although the 16th Bond film is entitled License to Kill, the movie doesn’t really explore that concept.
During hearings about Princess Diana’s death, speculated by some to have been a killing targeted by the Royal Family and MI 6, a spy named Sir Richard Billing Dearlove testified to a government commission. Dearlove said MI 6 did, in fact, grant licenses to kill – he described these as "Class 7" authorizations. Presumably a "Class 7" authorization arises under Section 7 of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act. This legislation authorizes "crown servants", that is spies and other government officials, to commit acts overseas that would be illegal in the United Kingdom. Dearlove implied that MI 6 had invoked this section to kill, or attempt to kill, a "Balkan war lord." Dearlove denied that anyone with "license to kill" had tampered with the impetuous Princess Diana. (There is no corollary law in the United States. Indeed, Part 2.11 of Executive Order 12333, an enabling Act for American national security prohibits assassination – this is at Part 2.11. This probably explains why the two men with licenses to kill that I knew were hesitant to exercise that right and couldn’t show me the license itself – although the Seal spent a long time flipping through his credit cards before acknowledging that he had probably misplaced the actual document.)
I think that it’s interesting to observe that the exact phrase "license to kill" appears in Shakespeare. In fact, I believe that some echo of this phrase probably underlies the later literary use of the concept by Ian Fleming. The expression is used in Act IV, scene iii of Shakespeare’s Henry VI part Two, probably the first play that the Bard wrote entirely by himself.
Henry VI (II) is generally lifeless, comprised of bombastic exchanges between various conspirators against the feckless King. However, the first dash of recognizably Shakespearian drama occurs in the fourth act. At that point, the stage is taken by a group of peasants and tradesmen, the same kind of caricatured "rude mechanicals" that will later appear as slavishly loyal to the Athenian crown in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These rural commoners are led by Jack Cade, a charismatic peasant who claims to be related to the Mortimer family – that is, the Duke of York, an enemy to King Henry VI. Cade urges a rebellion against the King and gathers his followers into a ragtag army. The rebels manage to kill a few noblemen who have underestimated the strength of the insurgency. Cade reaches London and taps the famous stone with his sword, a weapon appropriated from a nobleman killed by his rabble, and declares himself Lord Mayor. The King’s troops put down the rebellion when the common people in London recognize that governance by a peasant lout from Kent will be bad business for them and rise against insurgents. Cade is mortally wounded. Later, his body is dragged through the streets of London, quartered and his limbs sent as warnings to villages in Kent thought to be particularly implicated in the rising.
Shakespeare’s peasant rebels are witty anarchists. They talk in jargon and apply the expertise of their respective trades as part of their uprising – a butcher, for example, is expected to slaughter the Crown’s minions. Cade is belligerent, funny, and energetic and, although monstrous, he is the best thing in the play. The audience’s egalitarian sympathies are with this bold rebel who declares that anyone who so much as knows how to write his own name should be executed – it’s like Mao’s cultural revolution or Trump’s insurgency against the elites. Furthermore, Cade’s program is one that parodies the excesses of the upper class – the rights that he seizes are those that are traditionally held by noblemen and royalty. (For instance, he declares that he will exercise droit du seigneur.) Shakespeare deploys Cade’s rebellion both as a veiled attack on upper class privilege but also as a mirror for the various rebellions vexing the regime – each faction seems to divide into smaller factions by a process of seemingly unlimited fission. Accordingly, Cade’s rebellion doubles the uprising of the House of York that will ultimately produce Richard III – it’s typically Shakespearian to show an event and, then, parody (and criticize) that event by showing it enacted by people of lower social status.
Cade’s rebellion is noteworthy for a famous quotation originating in that part of Henry VI (II). After Jack Cade has exhorted his men to rebellion, a follower named Dick, a butcher, cries: "The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers." Cade responds that parchment on which lawyers write deeds and warrants is a "monstrous" thing and that bee’s wax used to produce documents "under seal" sting the common man like a bee itself. He urges his followers to enlarge their violence and to kill anyone who can read or write or "keep an accompt" (that is, "keep accounts" or do bookkeeping).
At the battle of Blackheath, Shakespeare has Cade call for Dick, the enemy of the Bar, described as the "butcher of Ashford." Cade praises Dick for having killed a number of noblemen. Then, he says:
They fell before thee like sheep and oxen and thou behav’st thyself as if thou had been in thine own slaughterhouse; therefore, thus will I reward thee, the Lent shall be as long again as it is, and thou shalt have a license to kill for a hundred lacking one.
The term "license to kill" is my focus. This is the phrase that I think Ian Fleming cribbed from this play. In this context, a "license to kill" means a legal franchise to kill animals and produce meat during Lent. Traditionally, Catholics were prohibited from eating red meat (or fowl) during the forty days of Lent. However, the Crown granted certain butchers a "license to kill" so that they could produce meat for people exempt from Lenten fasting and dietary requirements. The Church recognized that a forty-day prohibition on meat might be dangerous to pregnant women or people with health problems. Accordingly, some butchers were allowed to produce meat throughout Lent for the specific purpose of serving that group of customers. Of course, prohibition always spawns violation of that prohibition. Presumably, butchers granted a Lenten "license to kill" were particularly popular during the 40 days of abstinence – I expect that all manner of people, and not just those with frail health, might patronize a butcher with an exclusive "license to kill" during Lent. Thus, a monopoly "license to kill" would be particularly lucrative to its holder.
In his speech, Cade blasphemously announces that he will extend Lent to eighty days, thereby increasing the value of the "license to kill" he plans to grant to the butcher, Dick. Shakespeare is amused that Cade’s arrogance extends to far as to adjust the calendar and make changes to Lent – it’s like the French revolutionaries renaming the months after 1789 and abolishing the Holy Days. Furthermore, Cade promises to reward Dick’s bloody service by granting him this monopoly "license to kill" for not merely one 80 day period of Lent, but for a "lease" of "one-hundred lacking one" – that is for 99 years.
So far as I know, no critic has observed that Fleming’s "license to kill" may originate in Henry VI (part Two). I have now rectified that omission.