Time To Stop Tinkering With the Machinery of Death | The Nation


Time To Stop Tinkering With the Machinery of Death

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I traveled to ten countries in Africa last year, often raising human rights. I can remember questioning the minister of one government about its having detaining journalists. The minister replied: "You can hardly criticize us for imprisoning journalists when you have people sitting on death row for twenty years."

About the Author

Sen. Russ Feingold
Russ Feingold is a US Senator from Wisconsin.

Because our use of the death penalty increasingly isolates us in the world, the killing must stop.

Although African-Americans constitute only 13 percent of the population, since 1976, African Americans account for 35 percent of those executed, 43 percent of those who wait on death row, and 67 percent of those who wait on death row in the Federal system. Since 1976, America has executed eleven whites for killing a Black, but has executed 144 Blacks for killing a white.

The ghosts of institutional racism still haunt our courthouses. No matter how hard we try to exorcize the demons of our nation's past, we cannot seem to rid them.

Because the risk appears substantial that people are dying because of the color of their skin, the killing must stop.

Some will say that the death penalty deters crime. Were that so, Europe would have more murders than we do. But the murder rate in the United States is six times that in Britain, seven times that in France and five times that in Sweden.

Or compare Wisconsin and Texas. My state of Wisconsin abolished the death penalty in 1853. Texas has executed about 200 people since 1976. But in recent years, Texas has had a murder rate nearly twice Wisconsin's.

Because the death penalty does not deter crime, the killing must stop.

Indeed, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, "It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind."

Just as parents who beat their children often raise children who grow up to beat their own children, the death penalty teaches the appropriateness of killing. Death begets death. For from the days of the Flood, we have known that "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed."

Because the institution of the death penalty declares on behalf of all of us that killing is right, the killing must stop.

And should there not be some limit to the powers that the government can arrogate to itself in the name of the people?

Sometime soon, Juan Raul Garza could become the first prisoner executed by the Federal Government since 1963. What right does the nation have to kill this man in the name of us all, including those of us who live in the twelve states and the District of Columbia that have chosen to abolish the death penalty?

George Bernard Shaw said: "Assassination on the scaffold is the worst form of assassination, because it is invested with the approval of society."

Think of the hubris. We mortals, when we put on black robes, take upon ourselves the power of life and death. We cannot create a life, but we arrogate to ourselves the power to end it.

Because "vengeance is mine...saith the Lord," the killing must stop.

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