Thursday, September 8, 2011



I am opposed to capital punishment because I believe that our system of justice is so flawed that capital punishment cannot be inflicted on the guilty without the great risk that it will also be inflicted on the innocent, as statistics have proven to have been the case too many times. Yet, I recognize that the state has the right to execute individuals who are guilty of heinous crimes. Until our system of justice can be purified of its grave imperfections it is best for the state to no impose the death penalty on anyone. Life in prison without hope of parole is a far worse punishment than release from this life through the injection of drugs. Some argue that the cost of life imprisonment without parole is too expensive, yet the truth is that following the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court the condemned are entitled to so many appeals at the expense of the state that in the long run putting people to death is more expensive than life imprisonment without parole.


Perhaps the most striking statement at last night's Republican presidential debate came not from Rick Perry or Mitt Romney but from the audience, which applauded the preface of one of moderator Brian Williams's questions. Here's how it looked in the transcript:

Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you . . .
Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

Perry answered: "No sir," pointed out that death-row convicts are entitled to extensive appeals, and crisply declared: "In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice."

[botwt0908] Associated Press

Rick Perry has executive experience.

Williams then asked Perry to explain the audience's reaction to Williams's question: "What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?"

Although Williams surely did not intend it as such, this question was a gift for Perry, who got to reiterate his position while flattering voters by praising their wisdom: "I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of--of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens--and it's a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don't want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice."

Brian Williams was far from alone in being vexed by the audience's applause. "That crowd cheering for all of Rick Perry's executions was truly creepy," tweeted Glenn Greenwald, an expert on creepiness. "Any crowd that instantly cheers the execution of 234 individuals is a crowd I want to flee, not join," wrote the excitable Andrew Sullivan. "This is the crowd that believes in torture and executions." (Sullivan is hallucinating again. No jurisdiction in America employs torture as a criminal penalty.)

Blogger E.D. Kain adds: "When Perry is asked about the two-hundred and thirty some people he's executed on death row during his governorship, the audience bursts into applause. Torture, war, and death, and this is the 'pro-life' party. I submit to you that this moment is perhaps the most telling since George W. Bush left office; that the modern Republican party is not only intellectually bankrupt, but morally bankrupt as well."

Capital punishment draws strong emotional reactions on both sides, doesn't it? And whatever one thinks of the death penalty or the audience's behavior last night, the harshness, self-righteousness and simple-mindedness of these responses belie the left's self-image as intellectually sophisticated and tolerant of other viewpoints.

Kain implies that there is a contradiction between supporting capital punishment and opposing abortion, as if the establishment of guilt by due process meant nothing. Ta-Nahisi Coates similarly conflates the orderly administration of justice with wanton violence: "Apparently people were shocked by the applause here. The only thing that shocked me was that they didn't form a rumba line. . . . This is still the country where we took kids to see men lynched, and then posed for photos." But mob justice would still be injustice if the punishment were life in prison.

Coates correctly notes that in America, "most people support the death penalty. It's the job of those of us who oppose the death penalty to change that." But as Josh Marshall explained in a 2000 New Republic piece, what sets the U.S. apart from Europe and Canada in this regard is not support for capital punishment but the political system's response to it:

It's true that all of America's G-7 partners, save Japan, have abolished capital punishment, but the reason isn't, as death-penalty opponents usually assume, that their populations eschew vengeance. In fact, opinion polls show that Europeans and Canadians crave executions almost as much as their American counterparts do. It's just that their politicians don't listen to them. In other words, if these countries' political cultures are morally superior to America's, it's because they're less democratic.

It seems to us that the crowd's enthusiasm last night was less sanguinary than defiant. The applause and the responses to it reflect a generations-old mutual contempt between the liberal elite and the large majority of the population, which supports the death penalty.

There are, of course, reasonable arguments against the death penalty. But opponents are too resentful at their inability to steamroll over public opinion as if this were Europe or Canada to argue their case effectively. One of their most ludicrous tropes is to liken the U.S. to authoritarian regimes that also practice capital punishment. In reality, as Marshall showed, America still has the death penalty because it is less authoritarian than Europe. Thus whenever someone makes that argument, we feel a tinge of patriotic pride. We believe a similar sentiment lay behind last night's applause.

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