Last Rites for Capital Punishment?

Model of a late 19th century French guillotine

On September 10, 1977, France raised the 88-pound blade of its guillotine one last time and let it drop on a Tunisian immigrant who had sexually tortured and murdered a young French nanny, lopping off his head in just a fraction of a second. After that, a cry of “off with their heads” heard anywhere in the Western world would likely suggest little more than a taste for metaphor, not a thirst for blood. And soon, all manner of executions, not just the heads-roll variety, would be declared illegal throughout Western Europe. In due time scores of countries elsewhere—from Mexico and the Philippines to Cambodia and Rwanda—would put away their death penalty statutes. Only the rare developed nation would kill to show that killing is unacceptable.

The United States would be rare. Lethal injections, electrocutions, and other means of judicial death would offer an eye-popping display of American exceptionalism. The death penalty is still all too with us in America, and only eight other countries, with not a democracy among them, executed more than two or three people last year. That said, in recent years we have become less exceptional on this score.

The latest case in point is Connecticut, where lawmakers voted yesterday to abolish new death sentences. Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has vowed to sign the measure, which will make Connecticut the fifth state in the past five years to forsake punishment by death. (The others are New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Illinois; California voters will probably have their say at the ballot box in November.)

The biggest story, however, is not about the handful of states that are shuttering their death houses altogether. It’s about the slow death of capital punishment throughout the country, though I’d lay emphasis on slow. The numbers of executions as well as new death sentences have been falling steadily in recent years. In 2011, 43 people were executed nationwide, a 56-percent drop since 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Even Texas has been less eager to administer the heart-stopping potassium chloride and other lethally injected drugs. Texas extended the death protocol to 13 inmates in 2011, compared to 24 two years earlier. That’s just one way of sizing it up, though. Another way is to note that if Texas were a country, it would rank eighth in reported executions worldwide, right behind North Korea and the rest of the United States, but way ahead of countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan.

Moral Principle, Political Reality

For decades many in the United States have opposed capital punishment on moral and religious grounds. Such a culturally conservative force as the American Catholic hierarchy has repeatedly denounced the practice as a violation of the sanctity of human life. To me, one of the most cogent moral arguments against the death penalty came from Pope John Paul II. He argued time and again that the only possible justification for capital punishment (or any use of deadly force) would be strict self-defense—which rules out the death penalty in almost every conceivable circumstance. That’s because, as John Paul noted, there are many other ways of protecting society against a killer, ways known collectively as the modern penal system.

As someone who dislikes capital punishment for more or less those reasons, I’d be happy to give the credit for its decline to the abolitionists and their excellent principles. But I’d be kidding myself.

It’s not moral revulsion against the whole idea of capital punishment that has thinned the execution ranks. It is the well-founded fear of executing the innocent, a real possibility brought to light not by moral arguments but by the evidentiary wonders of DNA, which has led to multiple exonerations in recent years. Polls show that most though a declining number of Americans still support capital punishment at least in theory, and the basic reason is that most inmates on death row are not innocent. They’re guilty as hell.

So, Americans haven’t yet had a moral conversion on this issue. And that’s okay. In a pluralistic society, citizens—even those on the same side of an issue—will bring diverse values and considerations to the table of public conversation. When it comes to the death penalty, some worry about faulty procedures that could lead to wrongful execution or simply about the costs of seemingly endless appeals. It’s the job of others including the theologically motivated to add moral principles to the mix, and to do so with humility and what the Declaration of Independence refers to as a “decent respect” for the opinions of humankind. It’s fair to say that many different opinions have coalesced to put the greatest pressure on capital punishment in decades.

Counting on Conservatives

What might eventually tip the scales toward abolition is not liberal outrage but conservative caution. True, many conservatives have taken the untenable view that government—which, in their minds, is incapable of adequately performing a simple task like creating a construction job or an affordable housing unit—is somehow so adept and infallible that it can be trusted to make ultimate decisions about life and death. This logic is no longer flying with increasing numbers of Americans, however. And they include many who lean right.

The last words here go to Richard Viguerie, a father of what used to be called the New Right, now known as the Tea Party.

Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone’s life. In other words, it’s a government system that kills people (his emphasis)….

The death penalty system is flawed and untrustworthy because human institutions always are [my emphasis]. But even when guilt is certain, there are many downsides to the death penalty system. I’ve heard enough about the pain and suffering of families of victims caused by the long, drawn-out, and even intrusive legal process. Perhaps, then, it’s time for America to re-examine the death penalty system, whether it works, and whom it hurts. …read more

Writing High on War

In his unflinchingly honest book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges spoke of war as a drug—which he imbibed. He certainly looked happy in pictures of him taken during the wars in the former Yugoslavia that he covered for the Times, but that’s not the exact feeling he described. “I had a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning,” he explained to my friend and colleague Bob Abernethy in a June 2003 interview. “I had a sense of ennoblement. There is a rush in war. And it’s very hard, if not impossible, to re-create this feeling in anything else.”

War correspondents are well known for seeking that rush—although Anthony Shadid was wired differently. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist died a week ago after suffering an asthma attack while reporting on the conflict in Syria for the Times. (Yesterday two more journalists, an American working for The Sunday Times of London and a French photographer, died in shelling there by Syrian security forces.) Shadid did not like being called a “war” correspondent. “I don’t enjoy covering war,” he told an interviewer last year. But he did want to cover the Middle East, and he explained that when conflict becomes part of that story, “then I feel obligated to cover it.”

In one of the tributes following the tragedy, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post felt a need to point out that Shadid was “no adrenaline junkie.” The contrast with other battlefield scribes was implicit. Recounting times when Shadid (who died at 43) was shot and kidnapped while going after stories, Chandrasekaran added, “He did it because he wanted to know what was really happening. And that couldn’t be gleaned from a distance.”

Hedges’s book, on the other hand, is in part a chronicle of compulsion and exhilaration. His ultimate verdict on war has far less to do with glorification than with indictment, but as he described in the interview with Abernethy (adapted in a book that Bob and I did, The Life of Meaning):

In every conflict I’ve covered, you reach a point—and I think I reached this point certainly in El Salvador—where you feel that it’s better to live for one intoxicating, empowering moment than ever go back to the dull routine of ordinary life, and if your own death is the cost of that, then that’s a cost you’re willing to accept.

Almost inseparable from the addictiveness, in Hedges’s treatment, is the sense of meaning and purpose. He’s not just talking about war correspondents. He refers to the kind of meaning that soldiers find when they’re tested in battle, and that the civilian Serbs of Sarajevo found when they paraded in the streets at the outbreak of war against their ancient enemies, the Croats. On both sides in the Balkans, “people were ecstatic,” he recalled in the interview.

 A kind of euphoria often grips a country in wartime. And war is, of course, the very opposite of that. It is a bit like the beautiful nymph in the fairy tale that seduces you, and when you kiss it, it inhales the vapors of the underworld.

Just War = Good War?

Here’s where meaning drifts toward madness. And that is the fate of deadly force as portrayed also by some of the most compelling theological figures of the past few generations. Pope John Paul II, for example, was not known to wax meaningful about the ecstasies of war. He sounded more like a French existentialist when he spoke of war as “an adventure with no return,” and as always a “defeat for humanity.” John Paul’s was quite nearly a pacifist pontificate.

How far have these sentiments traveled from the classical Christian just-war theory? Not as far as they might seem.

St. Augustine, the architect of that intellectual tradition, believed that war could be morally justified under exceptional circumstances, but that doesn’t mean he believed in such a thing as a “good war,” as World War II has been called. Phillip Cary, a philosophy professor at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and an astute interpreter of Augustine, has thrown light on this fine distinction in his lectures and writings. Cary told me a few years ago that the post-9/11 rallying cry might be, “Fight in good conscience. The terrorists are the bad guys.” But he added that Augustine would say differently, “Fight in bad conscience. The terrorists are human beings and sinners just like you.”

It is a tragic and paradoxical place that war inhabits, in such a theological view—morally inescapable at times, but scarcely virtuous. …read more