Monday, January 29, 2007

Death penalty demagoguery among Democrats

I love this op-ed. Why? Because it goes beyond "this political party good, this political party bad."

Instead, it simply looks at how the issue of the death penalty has prompted demogoguery among Democrats. Good job to Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun.

Our society can do better than capital punishment

Just as death penalty supporters present an intuitive argument -- killing killers keeps others from killing -- those of us who hope the Maryland General Assembly repeals the state's capital punishment statute this year have a belief that is similarly grounded in intuition and probably impossible to verify: Killing killers keeps others killing. I've considered both arguments over the years and come down on the side of the latter: State-sanctioned executions stunt our spiritual and moral evolution, they contribute to the cheapening of human life, and they have been far more useful to politicians than they have to the rest of us.

The part about politicians is easy to demonstrate, and I don't need much more than this: Bill Clinton and his wife support the death penalty. Why? Because it gives them tough-on-crime cred, makes them seem more conservative than they truly are.

When he was running for president in 1992, Clinton slipped back to Arkansas just long enough to oversee the execution of a brain-damaged killer named Rickey Ray Rector. It was the third execution during his tenure as Arkansas governor. Clinton scraped away the moral questions to score points with a public that might have regarded him as soft on crime. That was the attack his Republican opponent had launched in 1980, when Clinton lost his gubernatorial re-election campaign, and Clinton wasn't going to let that happen again.

In 1992, other so-called liberals, Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey, embraced the death penalty, hoping such a position would pull the Democratic Party to the political middle and win back voters who had marched off to join the Reagan Revolution in the previous 3 presidential elections.

The death penalty has been used for political gain across the land.

Mike Miller, the Maryland Senate president and for way too long now a leading Democrat in this blue state, said this in 2004: "If there's a gallows, I'll pull the lever. If there's a gas chamber, I'll turn the valve. If it's lethal injection, I'll insert the needle."

In the hands of politicians, the death penalty has been used in this way-- to earn tough-on-crime bona fides -- or as an object of demagoguery.

It has not been as useful to the greater society and likely worked against us.

There's no real evidence that having the death penalty deters others from committing acts of violence, but politicians, including prosecutors, keep making the claim. (The new Baltimore County state's attorney, Scott Shellenberger, told The Sun last week: "I'm still very much in favor ofthe death penalty. I still think it acts as a deterrent. Certainly a deterrent of one [person], and that is the person that receives the death penalty [and] will never kill again.")

This stuff has become so cliched now.

What's it getting us? A safer society? Fewer house break-ins? Fewer stolen cars? Fewer citizens locked up in prisons and jails? Fewer Baltimore boys being killed in the middle of the night?

If an American ideal is that our society be less violent -- and I think we still want that, right? -- then we can't be authorizing executions.



That's the moral burden of calling ours a civilized society.

If we all know and believe that violence begets violence, why do we give it our official approval? The death penalty makes hypocrites of us all.

I salute those in the General Assembly who are finally taking this up. I wish them luck in breaking through the demagogues' hold on the issue. And good for the new governor, who says he will sign a repeal if it reaches his desk. He might be ringing a bell to mark a new generation of American Democrat.

"I think the dollars could go to better use and could be invested in things that actually save lives," Martin O'Malley said the other day. "I don't believe the death penalty saves lives."

Here's what saves lives and makes our communities safer: Good medical care for poor children; access to successful schools; dynamic and sustained intervention in the lives of at-risk juveniles and rehabilitation of the dysfunctional families that produced them; restoration of fathers to households; strict enforcement of handgun laws and hard sentences for adults who repeat violent crimes; hospitalization and treatment for men and women addicted to heroin, cocaine and alcohol; job opportunities for ex-offenders to stem recidivism.

Killers should go away for life without parole. We pay for that -- that's the price of calling ourselves civilized. But if we do the other stuff -- all that unfinished business that we need to get to in the next generation -- then eventually we'll have fewer killers coming into our courts and our prisons. That has to remain the ideal. We get there with logic and reason, not with demagoguery, and not by lethal injection.

1 comment:

QtheLesser said...

Just to let you know, I read the article you posted and jotted down a few thoughts about it in my blog.