Death Penalty Politics

Death Penalty Politics

The seismic shift in the politics of the death penalty is staggering.


The seismic shift in the politics of the death penalty is staggering. Those who have long labored in the vineyards of abolition find themselves suddenly able to talk about the subject in polite company, yet uncertain just how to deal with the headway that’s being made. The latter is understandable for two reasons. Some of the newly arriving allies simply smell victory and want to be in for the political rewards. As they have expended no capital in the long struggle, with little understanding of the nuances of the issue, their energy is impressive and possibly of value but likely good only in the short term. Others’ newfound interest arises only because public opinion is shifting. Their goal is to undermine and nullify any significant alteration in what is for them an important political tool.

So, to those who have struggled to put an end to the barbarity of state killing in America, a word of advice. Two, actually: Caveat emptor. Many of your new allies are more interested in quick results than true abolition; others are intent only on co-opting the developing momentum and turning it to their advantage.

The first group, more positively intended, includes many well-meaning individuals and organizations, some with long-sought philanthropic dollars to invest in a “good cause.” But their commitment too often translates into how-soon-do-I-get-something-to-show-for-my-money, and their company may quickly be a memory. They can certainly be helpful and should be welcomed, but a short attention span and a need for the reassurance of the often superficial analyses of “experts” bode ill for a long marriage.

The others are more problematic. Along with the shocked realization that those left-wingers in the media have caught on and are dangerously close to exposing them, the bad news in the polls and the avalanche of exonerations, new studies and sudden conversions have brought the bloodthirsty up short. Politicians to the core, these heretofore steely-eyed dealers in death suddenly find it necessary to demonstrate their willingness to perhaps take another look at this system they’ve built (witness Clinton’s decision to stay the first federal execution in forty years). Well, “perhaps” is the operative word.

Not all have come over, of course; many are still happy to cast the first stone. But even Jerry Falwell, Christ’s personal used-car salesman, opined that Karla Faye Tucker’s conversion made her deserving of life, and word has it he even asked mercy for a Black Muslim named Shaka Sankofa, once Gary Graham, dead as of June 22, thanks to George W. Bush, in Texas. Speaking of whom, the Lone Star State’s serial-killer Governor, who never saw an executionee who wasn’t guilty as charged after having “full access to the courts”–the proceedings of which are now known to include deafness to innocence, sleeping defense attorneys, “experts” in ethnic propensities for violence and the world’s record in lining up children to be killed for killing–did himself grant a short hiatus in a recent death march to allow for a pesky DNA test.

This sudden awakening to dysfunction in the death system– having made even Al Gore “uncomfortable,” as he had “assumed up until very recently that the mistakes were rare and unusual” (where has he been?)–has caused a flurry of climbers-on to the moratorium bandwagon. The moratorium, a good idea adopted by the American Bar Association in 1997, calls for a halt to the killing while a serious study of the flaws inherent in the death system are examined and, if possible, rectified. But because such a study, if objective and serious, would lead inevitably to abolition, this new spate of converts, who quickly see the handwriting on the wall, are even more quickly eviscerating the moratorium by insisting on “reform.” Terrified that the public will get a good look, “reformers” are intent on tinkering–anything for a quick fix–just to make the killing work.

But the lid is off. A movement born from years of struggle by dogged lawyers, activists, parents, academics, religious folk, students and a parade of innocents has broken through the white noise of politics and exposed the atrocities below the radar. And a public once gulled into believing that state killing, discomfiting as it may be, was the necessary tool of a properly functioning justice system intent on providing them a safe society, is now exposed to the rapidly emerging image of a chamber of horrors operating in the service of partisan advantage.

Abolitionists know that state killing is a political tool unrelated to justice or decency; like slavery, its use corrupts us all. As the man once asked, “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”

Abolitionists, work with your new allies, of course, but don’t forget how you got here. Caveat emptor.

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