Presidential campaign debates are designed to give the candidates an opportunity to express themselves to voters. But the audiences, too, sometimes make their views known. That happened in the Republican debates on September 7 and 12, in two episodes that have been much noticed. On the 7th, NBC’s Brian Williams asked Texas Governor Rick Perry whether at any time while presiding over the executions of the 234 people who had suffered the death penalty under his governorship (it has now risen to 235) he had “struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent.”
Perry had slept fine. Texas, he said, has a very “thoughtful” judicial system. Then he went on to issue a kind of threat. He said, “If you come into our state…and you kill…one of our citizens…you will be executed.” The crowd applauded enthusiastically.
Williams, evidently taken aback by the demonstration, followed up by asking Perry what he made of the fact that his response had drawn applause. The governor was undisturbed, and repeated his threat: “Our citizens…have 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.”
That these were not the only possible sentiments regarding executions was made clear soon afterward. A mass movement, not only in the United States but in countries around the world, arose to oppose, unsuccessfully, the execution in Georgia of Troy Davis, whose conviction for murder twenty-two years ago had been thrown into doubt by new evidence, including the recantation of seven of nine witnesses. A petition signed by more than 600,000 people was presented to the Georgia parole board, which let the execution go forward.
At the GOP debate on the 12th, there was another public expression of enthusiasm for loss of life in Texas. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who favors repeal of President Obama’s health plan, what medical response he would recommend if a young man who had decided not to buy health insurance were to go into a coma.
Paul answered, “That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.” He seemed to be saying that if the young man died, that was his problem.
There were cheers from the crowd.
Blitzer pressed on: “But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” Someone in the audience shouted, “Yeah!” And the crowd roared in approval.
A characteristic that these exchanges have in common is cruelty. Cruelty is a close cousin to injustice, yet it is different. Injustice and its opposite, justice—perhaps the most commonly used standards for judging the health of the body politic—are political criteria par excellence, and apply above all to systems and their institutions. Cruelty and its opposites, kindness, compassion and decency, are more personal. They are apolitical qualities that nevertheless have political consequences. A country’s sense of decency stands outside and above its politics, checking and setting limits on abuses. An unjust society must reform its laws and institutions. A cruel society must reform itself.
There have been many signs recently that the United States has been traveling down a steepening path of cruelty. It’s hard to say why such a thing is occurring, but it seems to have to do with a steadily growing faith in force as the solution to almost any problem, whether at home or abroad. Enthusiasm for killing is an unmistakable symptom of cruelty. It also appeared after the killing of Osama bin Laden, which touched off raucous celebrations around the country. It is one thing to believe in the unfortunate necessity of killing someone, another to revel in it. This is especially disturbing when it is not only government officials but ordinary people who engage in the effusions.